A UNION official used a publicly funded credit card to pay for five holidays in Lanzarote costing more than €8,000 – all of which was repaid – a new watchdog report has revealed.
The credit card was part of the state-funded "SIPTU slush fund" aimed at providing training for low-skilled workers.
A report by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) has uncovered new details about the fund which has been at the centre of major controversy in recent years.
It confirmed that the senior SIPTU official, Matt Merrigan, who administered the fund, used its credit card "in error" to book five trips to Lanzarote which were not business related.
Mr Merrigan told the C&AG that the payments incurred in the Lanzarote trips "had been fully refunded".
The Lanzarote jaunts are among a previously undisclosed set of 18 foreign trips, costing a combined €46,000, uncovered by the C&AG.
Destinations also included London, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Milan and Zurich in Europe, as well as Orlando, Texas and California in the US.
The newly identified junkets come on top of the 56 foreign trips to places like New York, Australia and Hong Kong already identified by the Health Service Executive, which contributed to the fund.
Other funding came from the Department of Health and the Local Authority National Partnership Advisory Group.
The C&AG report found that public money from various agencies totalling €4.15m was available to the fund between 2002 and 2011.
It found that just over half of this, or €2.2m, was spent on training programmes and grants which were consistent with the board objectives of the organisations providing the funding.
However, expenditure found to be "less clearly within the scope of the funding objectives" included:
• Travel and accommodation spending amounting to almost €600,000.
• €348,000 spent on "marketing and promotions".
• €99,000 spent on "hospitality", including €46,000 of which was paid to a single unidentified "restaurant and bar business".
• Payments to charities of €49,000, including a €17,500 payment to Special Olympics Ireland.
In addition the inspection team found cases where the same invoices were submitted on two occasions in support of different claims for funding.
And the C&AG reported that €422,000 in grants were paid to trade unions, including €68,000 to SIPTU.
The union said that many of the payments were refunds of expenses incurred by members on training courses.
Responding to the publication of the report, SIPTU general secretary Joe O'Flynn told the Irish Independent that the union has "accepted that there was a failure in relation to the governance, not just in relation to the funding agencies, but in relation to our own organisation as well".
"We should have been certainly aware of what was happening," he said.
Asked about the trips to Lanzarote, Mr O'Flynn said: "Obviously that should never have happened in the first instance, regardless of error.
"The fund should not have been used for foreign travel that was not business-related full stop."
The C&AG noted that there was "no documentary evidence available to the inspection team to determine the purpose" of the 18 new trips detailed in the report and how they related to the work of the fund.
It also highlighted five trips to Lanzarote, costing €8,300 and paid for by Mr Merrigan using the fund credit card. It states that the "fund administrator" (Mr Merrigan) said that all trips apart from those to Lanzarote, were "fund-related business".
The report adds: "In the case of Lanzarote, he stated that he used the fund credit card in error and the payments incurred in relation to that destination had been fully refunded."
Mr Merrigan, a former SIPTU health division organiser, refused to comment last night. "I won't be talking to you," he said.
The 57-year-old retired from SIPTU at the end of 2012, having been demoted to the grade of sector organiser the previous year after details of his administration of the fund first emerged.
Another official, Jack Kelly, a health worker and SIPTU shop steward, was also signatory for the fund. A subcommittee of SIPTU's executive had been examining his involvement.
A SIPTU spokesman said that the work of the committee had been suspended pending the outcome of the C&AG report. "So now that committee will revisit the situation regarding Jack Kelly," the spokesman said.
The C&AG reported that €999,000 was returned to state bodies between late 2010 and 2012, adding: "Accordingly, the net cost to the taxpayers of the fund's operations between 2002 and 2011 was €3.15m."