Westminster Scandal: Painstaking professional admired by peers

THE DISTRICT AUDITOR
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The Independent Online
It is perhaps just as well that John Magill chose to be an accountant because with his looks, love of detail and naturally cautious demeanour he could not really be anything else.

He is everything an archetypal accountant should be: bespectacled, soberly dressed, mild-mannered, solid, intensely discreet and private.

In fact, say those who know Mr Magill, the most daring thing he has ever done was to call a press conference to explain his interim findings on Westminster. That, they say, was an untypically high-profile act and one, again unusually, that left him open to accusations of bias and disregard for the principles of natural justice.

Those on the other side, the objectors to the policies of Dame Shirley Porter and her colleagues, are more flattering, paying tribute to his professional diligence and competence. His very refusal to betray any emotion, to remain entirely composed when confronted by the councillors and officials at the centre of his inquiry and their battery of lawyers, merely served to infuriate Dame Shirley and her allies even further.

Aged 52, married with two children, he lives in Wimbledon, south-west London. His whole working life, according to Local Government Chronicle magazine, which profiles him next week, has been devoted to Touche Ross, the giant accountancy firm. He had a spell in its Chicago office in the early 70s and was made a partner in 1975.

He is highly respected within the firm, and the profession at large, having been at various stages, Touche Ross's head of standards and audit. In 1987, a year into his appointment as Westminster's district auditor - he was originally asked to look into the council's selling of cemeteries at knockdown prices - he was made the firm's national director of accounting and auditing.

Apart from Westminster, his other huge case - and one that does much to explain the high esteem in which he is held by his fellow accountants - was successfully fighting the landmark "Caparo" ruling all the way to the House of Lords. Initially, the courts held that accountants acting for a company that was subsequently taken over owed a duty of care to the purchaser, throwing the time-honoured principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) out of the window.

The shock-waves felt by Touche Ross, which acted for the company taken over by Caparo, and the rest of the profession, were enormous. Mr Magill, then the firm's head of risk management, mounted a ferocious challenge and succeeded in having it overturned in 1990.

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