Fraud squad probes HSE missing millions
Black hole in €2.35m union training fund
Published 26/06/2010 | 08:25
MOST of the cash in a €2.35m fund routed by the HSE to a union-administered bank account cannot be accounted for, the Irish Independent can reveal.
The money was supposed to pay for a training scheme for low-skilled health workers, but instead, some of it was spent on foreign trips that involved union officials and senior civil servants.
More than 30 overseas trips were paid for from the fund, with officials from the HSE, unions, the Department of Health and the Department of Finance participating, some of them bringing partners.
A garda spokesman confirmed last night that the matter was now the subject of an investigation by the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation.
The move came after the HSE, which carried out an internal audit, made a formal complaint to gardai about the use of funds it believed were being administered by SIPTU.
But SIPTU has denied it authorised anyone to handle HSE cash, and last night indicated it would launch a High Court action to get a copy of the HSE audit that uncovered details of what a source called a “black hole” in the fund.
The Irish Independent can reveal that two SIPTU members had access to the €2.35m fund that was supposed to be used to run the training scheme.
One of them was SIPTU national industrial secretary Matt Merrigan, the son of the late trade union activist of the same name.
Sources said he was one of two signatories to a Bank of Ireland account into which the HSE funds were paid. The other signatory to the account, which was known as the ‘SIPTU national health and local authority levy fund’, was a union member, but not a paid official.
Documents seen by the Irish Independent show how senior Department of Health official Bernard Carey wrote to Mr Merrigan in December 2004 promising ongoing funding of €250,000 a year.
He said it had been earmarked “for SIPTU's human resource and personnel development schemes” and other union activities. He said the funding would “end an ad hoc arrangement” and put the funding on a firmer footing.
In a letter sent to Mr Merrigan at his SIPTU office in Liberty Hall, he promised the money would be “channelled to SIPTU via the office of health management”. Mr Merrigan is currently on sick leave from SIPTU after he was injured in a fall.
He did not return calls last night. Spouses It has also emerged that official receipts only exist for roughly €500,000 of the €2.35m spending between 2002 and 2009, and laptop computers were purchased with some of the cash.
Details of spending on foreign trips, taxis, hotel and restaurant bills have already emerged after the HSE audit was ordered by its then new director of human resources, Sean McGrath, in 2008.
It revealed extensive sums of cash were spent on at least 31 overseas trips to the US, Australia, the UK and Europe, some of which included spouses.
The trips included New York in 2004, 2005 and 2008, two trips to New York in 2006, 2007 and 2009, a trip to Boston in 2007, trips to Hong Kong, LA and Australia in 2008 and 10 trips to London.
The audit was also told there was spending on research trips in overseas universities. The HSE maintains it paid €2.35m, most of which cannot be accounted for. But the union insists it authorised no officials in the organisation to oversee such a fund.
The HSE said it made out cheques for €250,000 a year, which were lodged into an account located in the same Bank of Ireland branch where SIPTU holds its accounts. One of the signatories to the account is Mr Merrigan.
The departments of health and finance provided the money to health boards and then the HSE after an LRC recommendation in 2003 that funds should be given to train staff in the health sector.
The training cash came from a wider €60m programme for health workers called SKILL.
The €250,000 a year for SIPTU was intended to fund a training scheme for support staff and line managers in nonclinical services such as catering, housekeeping and portering.
The HSE said it has also ordered an independent external inquiry into “compliance and governance” issues surrounding the training programme.
Yesterday Health Minister Mary Harney said tough decisions would have to be taken if an investigation determined that money set aside for a training fund was used inappropriately for foreign travel.
She said that the HSE and the Department of Health were preparing documentation for the officer of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Ms Harney also said that she was studying the relevant audit report that she had received in the last week, adding that she hoped the report would be publicised as soon as possible.
Labour’s health spokesman Jan O’Sullivan said the disclosures raised serious questions about the way in which the fund was operated and would cause great anger among taxpayers.