THREE top officers at Hampshire County Council face disciplinary action for failing to put a £1.2m IT contract out to tender.

Investigators say public money was paid to consultants to set up Hantsdirect, its new call centre, in breach of local government rules and European law. One private consultant will have been paid £415,939 between June 2005 and March 2008 on successive short-term contracts, worth up to £900 a day.

The officers who face disciplinary hearings are Andrew Smith, director of property, business and regulatory services, Hugh Langford, business improvement and corporate manager and Jos Creese, head of IT services.

The investigation was triggered when a whistleblower complained to the Audit Commission that a consultant had been employed to set up the £4.8m centre in Fareham without going out to tender.

Council rules state contracts worth more than £75,000 must follow the tender process while under EU competition law the threshold is £147,000.

The council inquiry, led by district auditor Stephen Taylor, found seven IT consultants were employed without competitive tender. The total bill was £1.2m. One employment agency, London-based Commerce Partners, received the cash.

The damning report warned that there was no evidence taxpayers got value for money because officers failed to assess competitive bids.

Nor could the council demonstrate fairness in awarding the contracts to the one agency.

The report blamed a "number of failures of communication" between officers involved. It suggested money could have been saved through competitive tendering or if the work had been carried out by in-house staff on fixed-term contracts.

The report said: "There is no evidence that any individual officer acted wilfully in ignoring legal advice or procedures to achieve any personal gain.

"We do not consider there to be gross misconduct on the part of any one officer. However the various failures to comply with standing orders do meet the criteria for misconduct.

"Furthermore, having regard to the number of failures to comply, the amount of public money expended and the importance of the project to the council's interests and reputation, these failures cannot be said to be minor infringements."

Jeff Pattison, head of corporate and legal services and monitoring officer, defended the council's record, saying it was an isolated incident. He said the council awarded contracts worth £100m per year.

The council said the alleged misconduct was at the "lower end of the scale". Based on the findings of the disciplinary hearings, officers face a possible first or final written warning.