WELSH Culture Minister Alun Pugh was at the centre of a storm last night after spending £2,000 of public money getting permission to use a picture of himself alongside the board game Scrabble on his official Christmas card.
Last night the Cabinet Minister was under fierce attack from political opponents after the Western Mail confirmed details of the expenditure.
But the Assembly Government defended the spending, saying Mr Pugh, whose portfolio also includes responsibility for the Welsh language, was promoting the Welsh version of the game.
The total cost of Mr Pugh's 2005 Christmas card was £3,500, of which £2,000 was a licence fee paid to Mattel, the American group that owns the board game.
Plaid Cymru's Shadow Culture Minister Owen John Thomas said last night, "In my view this is totally unacceptable and a misuse of public money. I find it highly irresponsible and shall be getting in touch with Ieuan (Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones) to see if we should be calling for his resignation."
Welsh Conservative Assembly leader Nick Bourne said, "Even by the standards of this administration, this is pretty appalling. How many points can you get in Scrabble for the word 'profligate'? This displays once again an arrogance and high-handedness that is typical of this Labour Assembly Government. They don't deserve to remain in office, and the people of Wales will have the opportunity to get rid of them next May."
Tory MP David Jones, who represents the same Clwyd West constituency at Westminster that Mr Pugh sits for at Cardiff Bay, said, "What an appalling waste of public money - I have never heard anything like it. There are so many more useful things that £2,000 could be spend on.
"I am about to have a meeting with one of my constituents - who is also a constituent of Alun Pugh - who is having great difficulty getting funding from the Assembly Government for a local drug rehabilitation service.
"This is a vanity thing on Alun Pugh's part, and both he and whoever advised him to spend the money in this way should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves."
Welsh Liberal Democrat culture spokeswoman Eleanor Burnham said, "As Culture Minister we expect him to spend the odd night out on the tiles. However, Welsh taxpayers having to pay to put his face alongside the Scrabble tiles is a different matter.
"There seems to be no end to the bungling of this Minister."
An Assembly Government spokeswoman said, "As Minister for the Welsh language he is always keen to raise the profile of the Welsh language. This includes using his Christmas card to promote new and innovative opportunities such as the Welsh language's Scrabble game." She confirmed the information given to the Western Mail was "essentially correct".
This is the second time an AM has got into trouble over Christmas cards. Last year Liberal Democrat AM Jenny Randerson came in for criticism after signing Christmas cards during an Assembly debate.
Mr Pugh is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago he faced a call for his resignation after being accused of appointing a Labour Party member to chair the Welsh Language Board, even though she allegedly achieved a lower score than another candidate at interview.
Owen John Thomas made a formal complaint to the Commissioner for Public Appointments about the decision to award the post to Meri Huws, a lecturer at the University of Wales, Bangor. The Commissioner identified "administrative difficulties and shortfalls", but did not censure Mr Pugh.
Earlier this year it emerged that Mr Pugh had effectively sacked Geraint Talfan Davies, the well-respected Chair of the Arts Council of Wales. Mr Pugh's official reason for not offering Mr Davies a second term of office was the Minister's concern that not enough was being done to make the arts accessible to deprived communities.
In fact, as material released under the Freedom of Information Act made clear, the real reason for Mr Davies's removal was his strong opposition to Mr Pugh's plan to fund directly six big arts organisations. The Minister's bid to erode the so-called arm's length funding principle was seen by many arts organisations as a threat to creative freedom, with the fear of political interference raising its head.
Opposition AMs combined to stop the immediate introduction of direct funding, and a review panel led by Elan Closs Stephens, the former chair of S4C, is due to recommend future funding arrangements within weeks. Mr Pugh appointed Professor Dai Smith, whose son Owen was the unsuccessful Labour candidate in June's Blaenau Gwent parliamentary by-election, as the Arts Council's interim chair.
Mr Pugh is likely to face an uphill battle to retain his seat next May against a strong challenge from Tory opponent Darren Miller.