THE top civil servant in the Department of Health launched a probe into his own minister, Dr James Reilly, in the wake of the controversy over the decision to locate two primary care centres in his constituency.
Ambrose McLoughlin, the department's secretary general, ordered an investigation after revelations in the Irish Independent that a supporter of Dr Reilly owned the site of a proposed primary care centre in Balbriggan, Co Dublin.
The revelation that Mr McLoughlin moved to investigate his own minister will heap further pressure on Dr Reilly, who has faced criticism over his handling of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy and HSE overspending.
Informed sources said it was Mr McLoughlin's "sole decision" to launch the probe and Dr Reilly was aware it had been launched.
The move by Mr McLoughlin to initiate an investigation into the matter came as Mr Reilly was facing intense scrutiny over the controversial decision.
It also followed junior health minister Roisin Shortall's resignation after Dr Reilly bumped two towns in his constituency up a priority list for primary care centres.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said the investigation had found "no impropriety" on the part of the minister.
However, the unprecedented probe raises questions about the trust in Dr Reilly within his own department at the highest level.
Mr McLoughlin was present at the meeting with Mr Gilmore, as was Tony O'Brien, acting head of the HSE.
Afterwards, Mr Gilmore said: "They have told me directly that there was no ministerial involvement in the selection of any particular site for a primary care centre."
Mr McLoughlin ordered the investigation after the Irish Independent revealed that the site was owned by Seamus Murphy, a Balbriggan developer.
Mr Murphy is a Fine Gael supporter who allowed Mr Reilly to use a property on the primary care site as a base for general election campaigns.
Despite the assurance to Mr Gilmore, the secretary general instructed his internal audit unit to look into the matter.
Newly released documents show the day after the meeting with Mr Gilmore, October 5, an official from the unit, Niall Staunton, began his probe, emailing various key officials. The email was headed: "Urgent request – PCC sites in Swords/ Balbriggan."
The email said Mr McLoughlin wanted to "ascertain any connection that links the minister and/or his four advisers in relation to the selection of the sites for the Balbriggan and Swords primary care centres".
Mr Staunton emailed officials from the department's primary care and capital sections as well as Dr Reilly's private secretary.
The private secretary of Ms Shortall was also copied on the correspondence.
A source said last night that Mr McLoughlin made the sole decision to carry out the investigation "given the media coverage" at the time and to ensure taxpayers' funds were being used correctly.
Another source said: "It was obviously fairly big news so the department wanted to know its nose was clean."
The email circulated did not mention any of the other 33 locations proposed for future primary care centres, although the Department of Health says it was an audit into all locations.
Mr Staunton asked for "any documentation (emails, notes, reps etc) that you have on file in relation to his request" and said that he required the information "before close of business today".
He also requested that they "indicate a 'nil' reply if nothing is found."
Mr Staunton asked that "any files reviewed should be sent to me on completion of the request". And he noted that the request "is in relation to the selection of the site only", with the word 'site' underlined.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health confirmed that Mr McLoughlin ordered the probe to ensure the process met "the appropriate standards".
She added "no impropriety or interference" by Dr Reilly or his advisers was found, and said the HSE had a similar process running at the same time.
Dr Reilly was aware of the audit, she insisted, but could not say if it was rare for a secretary general to make such an order.
The department said the audit "examined all documentation relating to the siting of primary care centres".
Dr Reilly's spokesman did not return calls last night.
Other documents show that Swords and Balbriggan first appeared on the list of sites on the morning that the Government's "infrastructure stimulus" plan was announced by the Department of Public Expenditure.