Tuesday 28 March 2017

Fianna Fáil Senator made 'conflicting' expenses claims, hearing told

Donegal politician Brian O Domhnaill
Donegal politician Brian O Domhnaill
Shane Phelan

Public Affairs Editor

THE political standards watchdog has begun a hearing into allegations a Fianna Fáil senator claimed expenses for attending conferences and meetings in different parts of the country which took place at the same time.

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill is alleged to have breached ethics rules by claiming expenses from both Donegal County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta on three occasions.

In each instance hundreds of euro in travel and subsistence were claimed for attendance at events taking place simultaneously hundreds of kilometres apart.

Lúan Ó Braonáin SC for the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) said it was alleged Mr Ó Domhnaill contravened Section 168 of the Local Government Act 2001 by failing to maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest.

The senator, who was recently re-elected to the Seanad on the Agricultural Panel, is contesting the claims and believes they were made maliciously by an unknown person.

The ethics breaches are alleged to have occurred in 2006, the year before Mr Ó Domhnaill was nominated to the Seanad by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

At the time he was a member of both the council and Údaras, a body responsible for economic and social development in Gaeltacht areas.

A public hearing of the allegations had been due to go ahead as far back as 2012 but was delayed until today following a number of legal challenges by Mr Ó Domhnaill.

He unsuccessfully claimed the commission was not entitled to deal with the matters because they arose from an anonymous complaint by a member of the public.

He also unsuccessfully sought orders requiring the case to be heard by a commission comprising members who are bilingual and able to conduct and understand the proceedings without the assistance of an interpreter.

Today’s proceedings are being conducted by SIPO chairman Mr Justice Daniel O’Keeffe in both English and Irish, with translations being provided via headphones for those present.

Mr Ó Braonáin told the hearing there were three occasions in which there “appeared to be a conflict” between expenses claimed by Mr Ó Domhnaill from both the council and Údarás.

The conflicting expenses claims have been seen by independent.ie.

The first of these relates to an expenses claim of €641 made by Mr Ó Domhnaill to the council for attending an Association of County and City Councils conference in Dundalk, Co Louth, which took place from March 9-11, 2006.

But Mr O Domhnaill also claimed mileage expenses from Údarás for a 62 mile (99kms) round-trip from his home in Gortahork to attend a meeting of the Donegal Sports Partnership in Letterkenny from 3.30pm to 9pm on March 10. He also lodged a €16 subsistence claim.

The second conflict relates to a €469 claim from the council for mileage and subsistence expenses for attending a seminar in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, which took place on April 26 and 27, 2006.

However, Mr O Domhnaill is said to also have entered a mileage claim to Údarás for driving from his home to a meeting of the Donegal Sports partnership on April 27.

The third conflict relates to a claim for mileage and subsistence from the council totalling €680 for attending a Marine Tourism Conference in Dundalk, Co Louth, which ran from May 30 to June 2, 2006.

At the same time, Mr O Domhnaill claimed expenses for travelling 54 miles (87kms) to attend a Donegal Sports Partnership launch in Dungloe on May 31.

Paddy Walsh, a SIPO investigator, testified that Mr Ó Domhnaill gave a number of explanations for the conflicting expenses claims.

According to Mr Walsh, Mr Ó Domhnaill claimed he left the conference in Carlingford on March 10 so he could attend the sports partnership meeting in Donegal. He also went home to collect some mail before returning to Dundalk in the early hours of the following morning so he could attend the rest of the conference.

In a written explanation, Mr Ó Domhnaill said: “I made the round trip out of commitment to the public interests and my constituents.”

He added: “I feel my actions were entirely appropriate in the circumstances.”

Mr Walsh said Mr Ó Domhnaill also offered an explanation for the conflicting expenses claim in May 2006.

He said Mr Ó Domhnaill claimed to have left the Marine Tourism Conference in Dundalk midway through on May 31 to drive back to Donegal for a sports partnership meeting, before driving back to Dundalk, arriving there at 1am on June 1.

The criss-crossing of the country outlined by Mr Ó Domhnaill was not reflected in the expenses forms he had submitted, said Mr Walsh.

The hearing was told Mr Ó Domhnaill had a habit of submitting Údarás expenses claims several months, sometimes up to a year, after they had been incurred.

Mr Walsh said Mr Ó Domhnaill told SIPO that as a result there were “minor discrepancies” regarding dates and times on some expenses claim forms.

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