A petition has been set up calling for the removal of a Sunderland councillor who wrongly accused a grandad of being a paedophile.
Labour councillor Michael Essl accused 65-year-old Len Lowther from Roker of having child pornography on his computer in a number of shocking social media posts.
The grandad, who has three daughters and six grandchildren aged between seven and 22, described his “year of hell” and said the false allegation had a “horrendous” impact on his family.
But on October 28 the councillor, who represents the Ryhope ward, was forced to post an apology on Facebook after Len took legal action out against him.
In his statement, the councillor “unreservedly” apologised for the false allegations he made which he described as “groundless”.
Now, local group Sunderland for Transparency has set up a petition demanding Coun Essl be removed from his position.
The petition reads: “Sunderland For Transparency are collecting signatures demanding Cllr Michael Essl be removed from his role as Labour Councillor following the scandal of him being sued for spreading fake news about a local man.”
Since it was set, the petition has more than 300 signatures.
Len, who runs Pier Fish and Chips in Roker, said: “It’s been a year of hell for me and for my family.
“I run a fish and chip shop and cafe so I’m well known in the area and this has been absolutely horrendous.
“Forty years ago, I became a single parent to three daughters, I’d be the last person in the world to be that way inclined.
“It’s massively affected my family, my partner was talking about leaving me, not because she had any doubts about me but because of the pressure and the stress.”
He said the allegations put his life “in danger” and was worried about being stabbed in the street.
Len, who was born in Whitburn, continued: “I have had a few comments from people but a lot of people defended me.
“They were a couple of lads walking past the fish shop that said some comments I wasn’t happy about and similar incidents like that, it’s been horrendous.
“These things start rumours and I didn’t want there to be any rumours about me. There was nothing on my phone, there was nothing on my computer.
“It put my life danger, I could have been stabbed in the street or anything like that.
“I’m a very strong man, very determined, very truthful but I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. This has been horrendous for my whole family.
“My grandkids are my life. I couldn’t defend myself, I wanted to put big signs up but my grandson would have read them.”
In a statement posted in a Facebook group, Coun Essl said: “In September 2019, I Michael Essl, made numerous posts on Ryhope Have Your Say Facebook site and have commented on others alleging quite wrongly that Mr Len Lowther had images on his phone and his computer of child pornography and I accused Mr Lowther of being a paedophile.
“I accept fully these allegations are false and without foundation. I now accept that he never had such images on his phone or computer and the allegations I made against him were groundless.
“I wish to clarify the position and I apologise unreservedly to Mr Lowther, his partner and family members for any distress caused.”
As well as publicly apologising, the councillor was made to pay £20,000 in compensation in addition to legal fees.
Coun Essl, who previously represented Barnes, was unavailable for comment.
Len has donated £10,000 to Sunderland Veterans in Crisis which helps local veterans get back on their feet and £10,000 to Grace House which provides short break care services for children who have life-limiting conditions and disabilities.
The grandad added: “It was never about the money for me, I just wanted the truth to be out.”
Sunderland’s Conservatives have also called for the resignation of Michael Essl, claiming he is “unfit for office”.
Responding to the news, Councillor Antony Mullen, leader of the Conservatives, said: “Michael Essl made a false allegation of paedophilia against an innocent member of the public. This renders him unfit for public office and he should resign immediately.
“Members of the Labour Group in Sunderland were quick to distance their party from former Labour councillor, Paul Middleton, when he was convicted of child sex offences because they understood the reputational damage this could cause.
“It is hard to conclude that a member of that same Labour Group did not know the potential damage that making a false allegation of this exact nature about a member of the public could do.
“It was only after Mr Lowther took legal action, and after over a year of unnecessary distress, that Michael Essl has admitted that he was wrong.”
A spokesperson for Sunderland City Council said: “Councillors are required to comply with a code of conduct which sets out standards of behaviour.
“Procedures are in place for alleged breaches of this code to be considered by the City Council’s Standards Committee. It is not appropriate to comment any further.”