A high-profile NHS chief executive who was accused of nepotism by two whistleblowers has begun a fightback by challenging the employment tribunal that led to her suspension.

Two years of turmoil in south Devon

Two years of turmoil in south Devon

Two years of turmoil in south Devon

Paula Vasco-Knight, who was suspended as chief executive of South Devon Healthcare Foundation Trust in February, issued a formal complaint about the tribunal with the trust’s former chair Peter Hildrew last month, it has emerged.

They allege the tribunal went beyond its remit and failed to take into account leadership tensions in the run-up to a merger between South Devon and Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care Trust.

The merger was scheduled to complete in July, but this has now been put back nine months.

Their complaint relates to a tribunal in which two whistleblowers successfully claimed they suffered detriment after raising concerns that Ms Vasco-Knight had not disclosed an interest when appointing her daughter’s boyfriend Nick Schenk to a job at South Devon.

Assistant director of education Penny Gates and head of organisational development Clare Sadari had worked in a human resources department shared by South Devon Healthcare Foundation Trust and Torbay and Southern Devon. They brought the tribunal after leaving the trust in the wake of raising concerns.

Mr Hildrew resigned immediately after the tribunal judgment was issued in January.

Ms Vasco-Knight and Mr Hildrew claim the tribunal went beyond its remit, effectively putting Ms Vasco-Knight on trial “on a charge of nepotism” without being able to defend herself.

Mr Hildrew told HSJ in a statement last week that an internal review by South Devon had cleared Ms Vasco-Knight. His statement said the tribunal “missed” the way Mr Schenk’s appointment was “pounced upon” by the leadership of Torbay and Southern Devon trust.

“Some people did not want Ms Vasco-Knight to lead the proposed enlarged organisation and there was a very tense atmosphere,” it added.

Tensions between the two organisations were mentioned in the tribunal ruling.

“On occasions at least there was a degree of antipathy” between the trusts, it said. There “may well have been a degree of concern” over senior positions post-merger.

The tribunal heard that Ms Gates mentioned concerns about the appointment of Mr Schenk to the then Torbay chief executive Anthony Farnsworth in October 2012. This led to a joint investigation by the trusts.

The tribunal found the whistleblowers had not acted with malice and were prevented from continuing in their jobs as a result of raising concerns.

HSJ understands Ms Vasco-Knight is now on sick leave.

South Devon and Torbay and Southern Devon trusts said they both accepted the employment tribunal’s judgment on liability.

“We are working through all the issues arising from it,” they said. “We have not challenged or appealed the judgment. Anyone making a complaint is doing so in a personal capacity.”

A judiciary spokesman confirmed that the president of the Employment Tribunal was considering a complaint.