HSE officials say union hid information from €5m 'slush fund' probe
Published 16/12/2011 | 05:00
THE country's largest trade union has been accused of deliberately withholding information from the HSE about a taxpayer-funded multimillion-euro "slush fund" that was partly used to pay for trips abroad.
HSE officials told the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) yesterday they had sought information from SIPTU on the operation of the €5m fund, but were not being given details to which the union had access.
Committee chairman John McGuinness warned that he could use the Compellability Act to bring in officials to answer questions on the SIPTU National Health and Local Authority Levy Fund.
Even though the account bears the SIPTU name, the union has always denied having authorised it.
Matt Merrigan, a SIPTU health division organiser, and shop steward Jack Kelly set up the account. It was intended to upskill and assist lower-grade workers in the health services, mainly through the HSE 'Skill' training programme.
However, around 14pc of the fund was spent on foreign travel and subsistence for public-sector managers, union representatives and their spouses or partners.
Mr McGuinness said he would ask SIPTU, Mr Merrigan, Mr Kelly and HSE official Alan Smith to come before the PAC voluntarily. However, if they did not do so, he could use the Act to force them to give evidence or hand over papers.
The PAC discussed the fund, which paid for 40 trips abroad for union, HSE and Department of Health officials, as well as covering hotel and restaurant bills.
The committee heard that Mr Smith, who ran the 'Skill' programme in the HSE, went on almost all of the trips abroad.
Labour TD Derek Nolan said €1.1m was still unaccounted for. Fine Gael TD Simon Harris described the account as a "slush fund".
HSE internal auditor Dr Geraldine Smith said she had expected "detailed" records and "income and expenditure accounts" when she examined SIPTU documents but they were not there.
Independent TD Shane Ross asked if the union was withholding information. Dr Smith replied: "Possibly, yes".
Sean McGrath, from the HSE, said he believed that the HSE was also holding information back.
SIPTU president Jack O'Connor said the union did not attend yesterday's PAC meeting as it had not been invited, but that it wanted an opportunity to appear before it.
"To our best knowledge, we have co-operated fully with the HSE," he said. "It seems to be seeking information that we do not have."
He denied that the union had information in relation to a sum of €415,000 paid into the account in two instalments of €190,000 and one of €35,000.
Mr O'Connor added: "I am totally ashamed and humiliated as president of the union at what has happened."