A law firm headed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) chairman, Lorne Crerar, has been paid more than £120,000 for legal work connected with the quango’s crisis-hit Cairn Gorm snow sports centre, the Press & Journal has learned.
Harper Macleod was involved in the process to appoint the resort’s failed operator and in the setting up of a HIE subsidiary to keep the resort running after the company collapsed last year.
The publicly-funded development organisation said Mr Crerar, who also chairs Harper Macleod, had “no involvement” in decisions to use his firm. The agency added it was not responsible for the original procurement of the firm’s services, but had continued to call on them when its knowledge of the Cairn Gorm transactions was “considered to provide best value.”
The winter sports centre, which is owned by HIE, was plunged into crisis last autumn when its funicular railway was taken out of operation on safety grounds. Shortly after, CairnGorm Mountain (CML), a subsidiary of leisure group Natural Retreats which was appointed by the agency to run the facility on a 25-year lease in 2014, went into administration.
HIE set up its own company, Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland) (CMSL) to save jobs and keep the centre open and acquired assets from the collapsed firm’s administrators for around £460,000.
Harper Macleod was paid £50,916 as a sub-contractor by professional services firm EY, which was hired by HIE in 2013 to support the procurement of an operator for Cairn Gorm.
An HIE spokesman said: “HIE was not involved in that procurement. Acting on EY’s behalf, Harper Macleod undertook all legal work, which included preparing the lease agreement between HIE and CML. The fees paid to Harper Macleod by EY legal services during the transition to a new operator amounted to £50,916.85.
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“Harper Macleod’s knowledge of the Cairngorm transactions resulted in HIE using them for some associated legal advice between 2014-2017 where this was considered to provide best value. The total fees during this period were £24,110.70.”
The spokesman added that HIE had paid Harper Macleod £47,121.90 for “some legal services” in 2018/19 connected with the setting up of CMSL.
Now among the highest-earning commercial law firms in Scotland, Glasgow-based Harper Macleod was co-founded by Mr Crerar in the late 1980s. The lawyer, who joined the board of HIE in 2008 and was appointed chairman four years later, is due to step down from the top role at the agency early next year.
The Scottish Government declined to comment on Harper Macleod’s involvement with Cairn Gorm, saying it was an “operational matter for HIE.” The law firm also declined to comment.