THE chief executive of Essex County Council knew about some of Lord Hanningfield's excessive credit card spending during his time as leader of the authority, the Chronicle can reveal.
In fact, Joanna Killian attended some of the lavish dinners attributed by the authority to Lord Hanningfield and paid for by the Essex taxpayer.
In two consecutive evenings, Ms Killian, who is paid a basic salary of £210,000-a-year, had dinners with the peer at both Jamie Oliver's and Rick Stein's Cornish restaurants – with taxpayers picking up the £1,000-plus bill.
"It confirms our suspicions that Joanna Killian knew about and participated in some of these junkets," said county councillor Mike Mackrory, the leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition at County Hall.
But less than two months ago, when Essex County Council released the damning details of Lord Hanningfield's £287,000 corporate credit card spending to the public, Ms Killian said in an interview with the Chronicle that she had warned the 72-year-old on a number of occasions about his spending before it was "too late".
"Lord Hanningfield made the choices he did," she said.
But by cross-referencing Ms Killian's publicly available mileage claims and taxi receipts with the peer's alleged spending, the Chronicle forced County Hall to confirm that its chief executive had actually attended some of the dinners paid for by the corporate credit card in Lord Hanningfield's name.
During the 2007 Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton, for example, Ms Killian was with Lord Hanningfield when he spent £906.60 at Sam's of Sevendials Restaurant, an award-winning bistro in the heart of the city.
The previous November, Ms Killian attended a meal with colleagues at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Restaurant in Newquay, where £540.25 was charged to the Essex taxpayer.
And just 24 hours later, Ms Killian dined out with Lord Hanningfield and other unnamed colleagues, this time at Rick Stein's The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, racking up a £518.25 bill.
Lord Hanningfield, who was jailed for fiddling his Parliamentary expenses, has always maintained that the county council expenses in his name were not all his, ever since the county council published them when City of London Police dropped their investigation into the peer.
His credit card statements reveal that he dined out more than 400 times in five years.
But of those meals, 65 per cent took place between the peer and council members and officers.
He told the Chronicle: "She was at some of these meals. I spoke to her every day and she was with me on some of the occasions that I'm being criticised for.
"I rarely went anywhere alone, people in the office arranged for me to go to these places. The bill was just in my name."
The former pig farmer also said Ms Killian joined him for meals at the House of Lords on occasions.
The Chronicle has identified six occasions when Ms Killian dined with Lord Hanningfield at the Palace of Westminster.
On April 30, 2008, Ms Killian attended a dinner at the House of Lords with Lord Hanningfield and cabinet members with the peer picking up the £526.57 tab on the corporate credit card.
"She didn't try and warn me – she never mentioned a thing to me," claimed Lord Hanningfield.
But in response, Ms Killian maintained: "The work council officers did with Lord Hanningfield, including me, did lead to significant changes but national events overtook our work with him. Since Cllr Martin took over the role of leader changes have taken place and the processes relating to the leader's expenses are now some of the most robust in local government."
Cllr Peter Martin, who took over when Lord Hanningfield stepped down in February 2010, said: "I am confident that Joanna worked hard during Lord Hanningfield's time as leader to get him to understand the seriousness of the situation and to recognise his responsibilities to be compliant with the governance processes. I am also fully supportive of the way she handled the situation during what was a very challenging time, and she continues to have my full support.
"It must be remembered that both the City of London Police and the Audit Commission have investigated Lord Hanningfield's expenses, and no action was taken. My, and her, focus continues to be on making sure Essex County Council is ready to face the next series of challenges local government faces, and remains on its path of making significant savings, while delivering quality services for residents."
Ms Killian added: "Since becoming chief executive I have worked hard to ensure that over £300 million worth of savings have been made, and that the council is in a financially secure position to face the challenges now and in our immediate future.
"The work of our own internal audit team exposed a level of excessive expenditure that has been well-documented. As I have said before, the council is now a different organisation, with a different leader, and this could not happen again. Action is now in hand to recover monies that may be due to the council. As chief executive, I would have attended events and meetings on council business. That is part of my job.
"My own expenses have always been subject to approval processes and are there for people to see on the council's website."