Election manager claims money behind star's exit
FINE Gael was convulsed in a damaging and bitter war of words over the airwaves yesterday as the fallout from the dramatic decision of George Lee to quit the party got personal.
Education spokesman Brian Hayes, Mr Lee's former election manager, sparked a furious response when he suggested that financial reasons might have been behind the ex-RTE economics editor's decision.
Mr Hayes claimed the recent slashing of TDs' salaries and expenses, which were cut by 20pc over the past year, was a factor in Mr Lee's decision to bow out of politics.
"I think he was surprised with the reduction in his salary when he came into this place," Mr Hayes told RTE's Pat Kenny.
"I did have discussions with George when he was here and I think the reality is this -- he did see a major reduction in his income. That's the reality of the situation. Whether he was aware of that when he came in here ... "
But this was vehemently rejected by Mr Lee who called the programme to vent his fury at his former party colleague.
"They're scraping the bottom of a barrel now to try and denigrate me and that's absolutely wrong," he said.
Mr Lee rubbished Mr Hayes' accusation that money was a factor in his decision to walk away from the party and politics.
TDs can claim up to €27,000 in unvouched expenses.
"To earn €27,000 into your hand, you'd need about €50,000 to €60,000 or I'd say very close to it under today's tax rates of gross income. On top of that, I get €100,000 of a salary . . . that's €160,000.
"There's no way in RTE that people get that kind of money for the role I was playing," Mr Lee said, adding: "On top of that, in the Dail, you get a pension after just 20 years. A very, very, attractive pension. It's 40 years anywhere else."
Mr Lee also pointed out that he could have looked forward to the prospect of a massive ministerial salary, pension and expenses packet in the likely event of Fine Gael assuming power after the next General Election.
"If it was money, I'd still be there. I can't believe they're resorting to that argument to try and explain what's happened. I think they're in a bubble. I think that they can't understand it's an issue of principle," he said.
Mr Hayes last night attempted to defuse the row by playing down his earlier remarks.
He insisted he never claimed money was the reason for Mr Lee's exit, but admitted he had suggested Mr Lee was concerned about the "radical reductions" in pay.
"I don't think he left for that reason but I think it was part of the general change in lifestyle," Mr Hayes told the Irish Independent.
"I don't think he realised the radical reduction we've taken over the last 12 months between the income levy, pension levy, the pay cut. That's what he expressed a concern about."
The party's enterprise spokesman Leo Varadkar also said he didn't believe the salary and expenses was Mr Lee's major motivation for leaving.
"He took a big pay cut to come into politics. And then without expecting it, there was another 20pc pay cut," he said.
"Obviously, you go from a position with a big salary and relatively shorter hours to one with not such a big one and longer hours. I think he was finding the lifestyle adjustment difficult but I don't think that was the major reason at all."
Mr Hayes oversaw Mr Lee's staggering landslide victory in the Dublin South by-election just eight months ago.
After six weeks of intensive campaigning, Fine Gael colleagues assumed the two men would become "friends for life".
"Brian gave up his life and family and went and practically lived with George for six weeks and got no thanks for it," one Fine Gael TD said.
"He had a closer relationship with George than Enda did -- having spent 10 hours a day with him and he's just hurt and p****d off George never bothered to ring him up and tell him."