A BUSINESSMAN at the centre of Swindon’s wi-fi fiasco was paid £82,000 of taxpayers’ cash to provide training to Swindon Council officers.

Rikki Hunt, who stood down as head of the ill-fated Digital City scheme a year ago, was paid for consultancy work over a three-year period.

The firm, which is due to receive a £4,000-bail out by the council to stop it being struck off, was set up to provide coverage for Swindon and Highworth.

But only Highworth was covered and debate rages over the local authority’s £400,000 investment in the stalled project.

Mr Hunt also quit his role as chairman of the Swindon Strategic Economic Partnership last August after the Adver revealed he had gone bankrupt.

The former Swindon Town chairman received the payments between 2007 and 2010 to “coach council officers in preparation for their move to an arms-length company”. The company is thought to be Swindon Commercial Services, which handles council contracts.

He won the wi-fi contract with the council in November 2009, meaning he was already receiving the money when he was chosen to head up the scheme.

The details were revealed in a public question submitted by the Labour group to council leader Rod Bluh.

Labour group leader Coun Jim Grant said: “I am shocked and appalled that this man won the wi-fi contract while he was still on the council’s payroll. This administration proclaims to be open and transparent and yet this simple piece of information that is wholly relevant to the wi-fi deal was covered up from councillors and the public. I wonder why?

“There are all sorts of questions that need answering by this administration; including who signed off these payments?

“Did Rod Bluh and his cabinet colleagues know about and agree with these payments? And why was it the case that Rikki Hunt was deemed the most suitable person for the service he was paid for?

“It is just another example of why Swindon needs a new administration that will protect Swindon’s council-taxpayers, not their friends and themselves.”

The payments were revealed in an answer to a public question from Chris Watts, the Labour candidate for Eastcott ward in the May 3 local elections.

He said: “I am amazed that when the council’s audit commission investigated the wi-fi deal, details of these payments were not disclosed, or were they?

“An important part of the audit would have been to investigate the relationship between the directors of Digital City and the council and this material information would have been key to the deliberations.”

Coun Bluh issued a strong rebuttal of the accusations, defending Mr Hunt’s status at the time as a prominent member of the business community who chaired Swindon Strategic Economic Partnership and was a full member of the town’s local Strategic Partnership.

Coun Bluh said: “The decision to employ Mr Hunt as a consultant was a managerial and not a political one and the use of the chair of the local SSEP was entirely rational.

“I was not involved in this decision nor would I expect to have been.

“Fact: there was no contract awarded by Swindon Borough Council to Digital City for wi-fi – it was a commercial loan. Fact: a consultant is not on a company’s payroll. Fact: no information was hidden from councillors... this administration is more open and transparent than many other local authorities.”

Coun Bluh also disputed any link between Mr Hunt’s role as a consultant and the decision to loan £400,000 to Digital City.

“That decision was made solely on its merits,” he said.