FAS faces pressure to scrap inquiry into staff conduct
AN INQUIRY into the conduct of FAS staff has been thrown into disarray -- casting doubt over whether anyone will be held to account for a series of scandals at the state training agency.
FAS has already spent hundreds of thousands of euro on professional and legal fees in connection with the investigation into the conduct of some staff in the agency's corporate affairs, procurement and finance sections.
Eight employees and six former staff members are at the centre of the independent probe, which has been ongoing for the past 13 months.
However, FAS is now under pressure to scrap the inquiry after experts questioned the manner in which it was set up.
The concerns centre on a series of audit reports which identified staff members with cases to answer over how money was spent by the agency.
The reports found staff did not do their jobs properly, by failing to implement spending controls or blow the whistle when spending thresholds were breached.
But in a confidential report, respected consultancy firm Mazars questioned the manner in which the audits were compiled and the findings subsequently arrived at.
Now staff are seeking for the inquiry to be halted and the disciplinary charges against them dropped.
The agency is also bracing itself for compensation claims from staff who allege they were wrongfully investigated.
Those being investigated include FAS's former head of corporate affairs Greg Craig, whose company credit cards accounted for €400,000 in spending over an eight-year period.
FAS initiated the inquiry in an effort to "clean house" following a string of damaging revelations about questionable spending and procurement practices.
Staff members were singled out for scrutiny in a series of 23 internal audit reports.
After the audits were completed, FAS hired outside management consultant Ignatius Lynam, on a salary of €1,200-a-day, to examine the allegations against the current and former staff members.
Mr Lynam was asked to recommend what disciplinary action, if any, they should face, up to and including dismissal.
However, the whole process has been thrown into doubt by the bombshell findings about the internal audits by Mazars.
The consultancy firm was commissioned by FAS to compile a report in response to complaints by Mr Craig that, among other things, he was unfairly suspended from duties in late 2008.
FAS last night refused to discuss the Mazars findings as the report is subject to a confidentiality agreement.
However, email correspondence seen by the Irish Independent reveals it has major implications for Mr Lynam's investigation.
An email from SIPTU industrial organiser Brendan O'Brien, who represents some of the staff involved, to FAS director general Paul O'Toole reveals the union has demanded the inquiry be halted and the disciplinary charges dropped.
"Certain information has come to light which discredits both the manner in which the 23 modular audits were compiled, as well as the findings subsequently arrived at," wrote Mr O'Brien.
"The basis on which the disciplinary action (was) taken by FAS against our members is clearly not tenable and the only course of action at this stage is for all those charges to be quashed."
When contacted by the Irish Independent, Mr O'Brien confirmed that the email was genuine.
He declined to comment on the detail of the Mazars report because of a confidentiality agreement.
"What I can say is that we are in possession of independent findings which we believe warrant the suspension of the disciplinary process," he said.
Mr O'Brien said there was now an impasse between the union and FAS on the issue.
He said that while FAS accepted the findings, it had still refused to halt the investigation. The agency has also refused to go to the Labour Court for adjudication on the matter, he said.
A spokesperson for FAS declined to comment, stating the agency did not discuss human resources matters.
To date, no FAS staff member has faced the sack for improper conduct, despite the series of scandals which emerged over the past three years.
Disgraced former director general Rody Molloy was forced to resign, but received a golden handshake package which will be worth €3.8m to him over the next 30 years.