Civil Service chief tipped for No10 top job ‘bent’ rules to acquire £30,000 worth of paint

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Under-fire Civil Service high-flyer Antonia Romeo was at the centre of a fresh bullying storm on Saturday night after a former colleague broke cover with a slew of new allegations.

This newspaper has learnt the mandarin tipped to become Whitehall’s top official was accused of breaking strict Government procurement rules to acquire free paint and furnishings for her £9 million grace-and-favour apartment.

And she was accused of allowing her husband’s firm to use the taxpayer-owned property in New York’s elite Upper East Side for work events free of charge and threatening junior staff who raised objections to her behaviour.

As the new British Consul General in New York in 2016, Mrs Romeo insisted the luxury condo’s ‘granny’ decor be repainted. But her £100,000 refit plan was rejected on grounds of cost by the Foreign Office, given it had already recently been redecorated.

So Mrs Romeo had staff approach luxury UK paint brand Farrow & Ball to help redecorate the flat in return for free promotion and a taxpayer-funded drinks reception at her residence. A similar approach was made to soft-furnishing firm The Rug Company.

Antonia Romeo (centre left) is at the centre of a fresh bullying storm after a former colleague broke cover with a slew of new allegations

Last night, allies of Mrs Romeo insisted she was working to achieve value for the taxpayer and ‘bang the drum for Britain’.

But concerned officials complained to London that the freebie deals were struck outside of the usual procurement rules, amid fears it left the Government open to being sued by rival firms.

Mrs Romeo is also accused by former colleagues of threatening the careers of anyone who questioned her plans and bullying staff who objected. She categorically denies these claims.

However, colleagues have revealed Farrow & Ball provided tins of ‘Strong White’ paint that retails at £75 for a five-litre tin, helping drive down the cost of the redecoration to between $30,000 and $40,000 (£31,250), including $16,000 to ship Government artwork to New York.

The firm claims the shade ‘is both strong by name and strong by nature’ prompting officials in the New York consulate to refer to Mrs Romeo by the nickname ‘Strong White’ behind her back.

An ex-FCO official also claims they had to step in after Mrs Romeo allowed her management consultant husband John to use the taxpayer funded flat in the Beekman Regent Condominium free of charge for work events.

Companies using the residence for corporate events were charged around $1,500, but Mrs Romeo was accused of not charging husband John’s firm Oliver Wyman for a number of events in the first few months in New York where he had also been posted.

Eventually an arrangement for Mr Romeo to pay for future events was implemented and her allies last night insisted there was no special treatment for her husband – and claims otherwise had been audited and dismissed.

Mrs Romeo was accused of breaking strict Government procurement rules to acquire free paint and furnishings for her £9 million grace-and-favour apartment (above) as the new British Consul General in New York in 2016

Mrs Romeo was accused of breaking strict Government procurement rules to acquire free paint and furnishings for her £9 million grace-and-favour apartment (above) as the new British Consul General in New York in 2016

This row forms part of a dossier of complaints about Mrs Romeo sent by consulate staff to the Foreign Office in 2017, triggering a formal probe into her behaviour in which she was later cleared.

But the 2017 investigation sparked fury in the FCO with senior officials writing of their ‘frustration and concern’ at the perceived whitewash. Now the dossier of complaints about Mrs Romeo has been made public for the first time.

Spanning 12 months and seen by this newspaper, the cache has detailed listings of allegations through Mrs Romeo’s year in charge in New York including disputed tirades against junior staff who were often reduced to tears.

Shortly after Mrs Romeo took over in the plum Consulate role in New York in June 2016, staff began compiling evidence of her sharp behaviour toward them.

One official, Cassie Farrelly, wrote that month: ‘I have reason to believe, based on comments and on Antonia Romeo’s conduct thus far, that she will continue to bully me and use her position of authority to retaliate against me/punish me for doing a core function of my job – financial management and ensuring we plan for and stick within our allotted budget – and pointing out what our budget can and can’t afford with regard to her redecorating requests.’

Mrs Romeo is alleged to have told one official: ‘I don’t like hearing the word ‘no’. It’s proof that you’re lazy and you’re not doing your job.’

And in November 2016, a senior consulate staff member resigned citing Mrs Romeo as a driving factor in her decision to leave.

Mrs Romeo's £100,000 refit plan was rejected on grounds of cost by the Foreign Office. Her staff were said to have approached luxury UK paint brand Farrow & Ball to help redecorate the flat in return for free promotion

Mrs Romeo’s £100,000 refit plan was rejected on grounds of cost by the Foreign Office. Her staff were said to have approached luxury UK paint brand Farrow & Ball to help redecorate the flat in return for free promotion

Mrs Romeo is also accused of telling another official that perceived curtness in an email was a ‘career limiting move that could only happen once’. 

A Whitehall source disputed this, saying ‘words and phrases that the complainant ascribed to others were not accurate’.

The dossier also gives a detailed account on the astonishing rows over the Farrow & Ball issue. Mrs Romeo’s behaviour toward the Consulate’s estates manager, who questioned the redecoration, was seen as bullying by others – including an alleged threat to report the junior staff member to then UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft and Washington Ambassador Kim Darroch. 

The dossier claims one heated moment involved Mrs Romeo ‘cornering’ the staff member ‘and trying to bully her into providing her maintenance team to do Antonia’s requested painting’. 

‘She said ‘Do I need to have Matthew tell you to do this?’ and also that she would be talking to Ambassador Darroch to ensure it happened, both of which were perceived [by the official] as Antonia threatening her for not telling her yes.’

Again a Whitehall source disputed this and said ‘it is categorically not true that any threats were made’.

According to the dossier, civil servants were also instructed to beg fashion labels on behalf of Mrs Romeo for expensive garments for her to wear at parties and tickets to catwalk events worth hundreds of dollars. Officials raised ‘tricky questions of how to handle requests staff receive from senior staff to solicit gifts, loans, benefits’.

Mrs Romeo's colleagues said Farrow & Ball gave tins of 'Strong White' paint that retails at £75 for a five-litre tin, prompting officials in the New York consulate to refer to Mrs Romeo by the nickname 'Strong White' behind her back

Mrs Romeo’s colleagues said Farrow & Ball gave tins of ‘Strong White’ paint that retails at £75 for a five-litre tin, prompting officials in the New York consulate to refer to Mrs Romeo by the nickname ‘Strong White’ behind her back

And emails seen by this newspaper show the Luxury Goods Trade Officer for UK Trade & Investment raised her ‘discomfort’ at this.

The dossier reads: ‘It’s one thing if the company approaches us to offer us tickets, items etc and we then arrange to accept them on loan or at a discount but there’s something slightly more questionable about actively seeking out free items or favours from companies.’

The Mail on Sunday’s revelations last week that the Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Trade had been investigated for bullying and misuse of expenses were branded sexist by her defenders.

Whitehall trade union boss Dave Penman said there was ‘a whiff of misogyny’ about the exposé of the leading woman tipped to become the next Cabinet Secretary.

EVEN ANDY WARHOL WASN’T ENOUGH FOR HIGH-FLYER 

The centrepiece of the official residence of Her Majesty’s Consul General in New York is Andy Warhol’s iconic Silver Jubilee pop art portrait of the Queen.

Purchased for the Government Art Collection from Christie’s in 2008, it has not been visible to the public since 2013, but is the backdrop for glitzy celebrity-heavy parties thrown by the UK’s man or woman in the Big Apple. But for incoming Consul General Antonia Romeo, this priceless British treasure was not enough.

She requested that more artwork be sent but officials baulked at the £11,000 price tag to ship out more pictures from London, and the £5,000 cost to send back others.

Last night, ex-Consulate staffer Cassie Farrelly said: ‘I joined the FCO over five years before Mrs Romeo’s appointment, as part of a massive restructuring effort designed to reduce costs.

‘I took this responsibility seriously. At a time when public services in education and healthcare were still being cut, demanding unnecessary and costly renovations that didn’t meet policy seemed questionable.’

And allies of Mrs Romeo angrily claimed the revelations were part of an orchestrated plot to stop her succeeding outgoing Sir Mark Sedwill to become the first female head of the Civil Service.

However, it is concern about her suitability for that role that has prompted former colleagues to lift the lid on working for Mrs Romeo.

Cassie Farrelly, the FCO official who worked with Mrs Romeo in New York and raised complaints, has spoken publicly for the first time. She came forward to declare that the vast majority of those who complained about her behaviour were women, adding: ‘I know this, because I’m one of them.’

Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, the incensed American citizen added: ‘I don’t detect misogyny at work in raising reasonable questions about Mrs Romeo’s suitability to govern 430,000 employees based on the treatment I personally received and observed.’

And she has blasted Mrs Romeo’s ‘use of taxpayer-funded resources for personal benefit; her penchant for threatening any civil servants who, in service of their obligations to British taxpayers, sought clarification her diktats followed policy’.

Ms Farrelly, who left the FCO in 2017, continued: ‘In one example involving me directly, when Mrs Romeo demanded that hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds be spent renovating the taxpayer- owned Consul General’s residence to suit her preferences, I sought instead to follow clear FCO policies on estates management and procurement. I and my colleagues offered a variety of lower cost options within policy. Mrs Romeo responded by threatening my job security.

‘She painted me as incompetent and insubordinate to one of my line managers – an individual who had control over my performance review – claiming I was ‘looking for excuses’ not to do my job.

‘On the contrary, as the corporate services manager for one of the largest posts in the U.S. Network, stewarding taxpayer funds responsibly was a large part of my job. Maintaining duty of care for employees was another.’

In an interview she added: ‘As Mrs Romeo herself has said in one of her many media pieces, ‘Leaders can’t have a bad day.’ 

Even better leaders take full responsibility for their actions and conduct when they have fallen short and work to address them. They do not let allies cover for them or hide behind straw man claims of sexism.

‘And while female leaders who are effective and accomplished shouldn’t be held to a higher standard or a biased one that penalises them because they’re not warm and fuzzy enough, nor should they be allowed to meet a lesser standard of integrity and ethics when stewarding public resources and trust.’ 

The centrepiece of the official residence of Her Majesty's Consul General in New York is Andy Warhol's iconic Silver Jubilee pop art portrait of the Queen (above). But Mrs Romeo, requested that more artwork be sent

The centrepiece of the official residence of Her Majesty’s Consul General in New York is Andy Warhol’s iconic Silver Jubilee pop art portrait of the Queen (above). But Mrs Romeo, requested that more artwork be sent

Last night, a Government spokesman said: ‘These allegations – which all relate to a single grievance from a former employee – were investigated fully at the time, with involvement from the Government Chief People Officer, and it was determined by the Civil Service Chief Executive that no misconduct had occurred.

‘The complaints were dismissed and she was cleared.’

And allies of Cabinet Office boss Sir Mark Sedwill, who Mrs Romeo is in contention to succeed, moved to throw a protective arm around the beleaguered official.

A source close to Sir Mark said: ‘Antonia is a brilliant civil servant and has been outstanding at promoting British interests abroad. It’s precisely her effective leadership and energy at DIT that will help win trade deals for Britain and enhance our place on the global stage.’

But public purse watchers the TaxPayers’ Alliance hit back, saying: ‘Being halfway around the world does not give consulate fat cats the right to ignore value for money for the taxpayers back at home.’

Boss John O’Connell added: ‘Questions need to be asked about the procurement of cushy creature comforts for the Consul General, after officials had apparently refused a costly refurb of the residence.’

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