IN the years since Lord Hanningfield was first investigated for his expenses, he has always denied anywrongdoing.
His conviction and short spell in prison in 2011 for fiddling his expenses at the Lords was not the end of it either.
Ever since, Essex County Council, where he was leader, has been chasing him for a further £50,000 it claimed he wrongly spent on a council credit card.
However, Lord Hanningfield said he only spent £8,000 each year on personal expenses while at the council. He said all his spending has been above board.
He also said many people at the council offices had access to his card, and used it for legitimate spending.
Lord Hanningfield said: “I had been on the council for 40 years.
For most of that time, the chief executive or a director paid for things to do with the council.
“But in about 2000, they established the cabinet system, and I was able to use a corporate credit card. Things that had very often been paid for by masses of people were often on my credit card.
“I often didn’t have it. It was used in the office and if, for example, the Labour leader wanted to go a conference, very often fares and things would be put on the credit card inmy name.”
Lord Hanningfield insists others also had access to the credit card and paid for various items, including coffee machines and even an air ticket for a council boss’s husband.
He added: “Every month, the bill went into the treasury department.
They went through it with my PA and my assistant, and they didn’t talk to me about it much.
They analysed what was my personal expenditure. It came to about £7,000 or £8,000 a year, and that was published each year.
“About two days before my trial, the council suddenly came up with a figure of £250,000 over the years, which included lots of other people’s expenditure.
“I was asked at one time why I put on a ticket to America for the chief executive’s husband. Well, I didn’t put it on there. It was put on there in my name.
“I had been to Somerset to look at IT systems, with my deputy and four other directors. We stayed in a hotel, and the whole of that expense was put down to me.
That’s how they made such a big figure.”
He insisted all expenditure in his name was legitimate.
Lord Hanningfield added: “The council said I spent £4,614 on flights to Shanghai. We went to Shanghai to meet people who look after ports to try to get £100million to help with the newA120. We published all the costs. To go that distance, we went business class.
It was all put down to me, but it paid for other staff. But it went on my expenses.
“Then there was the £3,840 for five people to stay in a four-star hotel in Bournemouth. That was to attend the Local Government Association conference. I had been going to the conference for almost 40 years.
“In the old days, we all paid our own hotel bills, and then claimed it back. Under the new system, my PA put the whole bill on my credit card. It was nothing to do with me.
“The £230 for Goodwood races that was on my card was an away day for the office. Most of the expenses, meals and things, were paid for by ourselves. The £230 was for a vehicle that took us there. It was a work outing, a bonding day for about nine staff.
It had quite a lot of work attached to it as well.
“A lot of these trips were for the council and staff. The council had the credit card bill every month.
No one ever commented on it to me.
“There was an audit of my expenses the year before and I was told everything was okay. All my staff had to do was keep some more details and more receipts when I was entertaining people, so they could see who they were.
“The council also said I had dinner at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant with two other lords. It was all council business. It was networking.
And it was all reciprocated.
“If you look at other big county councils, they spent more over five years at conferences and on entertaining than Essex did.
“The trouble was it was all concentrated on the corporate card in my name.
“Initially, no-one suggested it was all my expenditure, as the county had been through my receipts every year, and had analysed my expenditure. If I paid for a dinner for four, a quarter of the bill was attributed to my personal expenses. When it came to my trial, they published this ridiculous amount of money.
“The county used very good counsel and tried to show I didn't care what I spent.
“For example, we were looking for a new bridge across the Thames. The Kent people went on a helicopter trip to look at the route – there had been a suggestion the bridge could go from Canvey, but if you go across the Thames from there you'll see it's all marshland, and you’d have to build an enormous bridge.
“There is a potential route and the Kent people wanted me to take a look, as did the highways people. The chief constable in Essex at the time suggested I could use the police helicopter.
“I also wanted to look at the travellers’ site at Dale Farm, at Crays Hill, so we flew over there too and we went backwards and forwards across the Thames.
“That afternoon, Gypsy Moth IV was taking disabled youngsters around the coast and they wanted me to meet it. So the police suggested they could take me to the port in the helicopter and someone else could pick me up later. So they did that. While we waited, we popped into a pub and had a sandwich and half a bitter. But counsel said I used the helicopter to go out for lunch.
“People were aghast in the court. No-one contradicted that.
My counsel had no idea what I was doing that day. But to me, when I had spent the day trying to benefit the transport system and looking at new routes, that was horrific.
“The lunch that day cost about £10 or something. To say I had taken the police helicopter to lunch was so bad. I was so furious in the court.
“My counsel didn’t know what had happened. I was passing him notes in court, but he said he would deal with it later. But he never did.
“I think it affected the result of my trial. I had never done any false invoices or anything else. I hadn’t thought I was doing anything wrong.
“I was getting traumatised and worn out and I ran out of energy to keep fighting it. It was so bad I gave up the will to fight.”