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Sunday 28 May 2017

State fails to pursue €1m paid to lawyers in error

Michael Brennan Political Correspondent

THE State has taken no action to recover €1m which was overpaid to two tribunal lawyers due to a typing error.

The error by the Department of the Taoiseach resulted in two senior barristers at the Moriarty Tribunal being paid €250 a day more than was intended.

The latest disclosures raised fears that the overpayment may never be recouped.

The tribunal's senior counsel, John Coughlan and Jerry Healy, were both paid €2,500 a day, rather than €2,250 a day.

The pair were offered the sum in 2002 in a faxed document containing the wrong figure. TDs yesterday questioned why no effort had been made by Brian Cowen's department to recover the money at the Dail's Public Accounts (PAC) committee.

The PAC's chairman, Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen, said taxpayers had been "milked on this one". He contrasted the failure to recover the overpayment of €1m with what would happen to someone on social welfare who was overpaid €20.

"They would be threatened with legal action," Mr Allen said.

The typing error was discovered shortly after a fax was sent to the lawyers agreeing the fee.

Although the Department of Finance sought to fix the mistake, the Attorney General's office informed them that the higher rate would have to apply.

Both Mr Coughlan and Mr Healy have earned more than €8.5m in fees each for their work with the tribunal, which was set up in 1997 to investigate payments to former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, as well as the awarding of the second mobile phone licence to Esat Digifone.

Fine Gael TD Padraic McCormack requested a copy of the advice on maintaining the €2,500-a-day fees from the director general of the Attorney General's office, Liam O'Daly, but was told it was confidential.

Extraordinary

Mr McCormack said it was "extraordinary" the money had not been recovered. "If it had happened in any other walk of life, it would be deducted from your next week's wages," he said.

Dermot Quigley, a principal officer with the Department of Finance, admitted an error may have been made in transferring the extra money to the barristers. But he said the people responsible were not prepared to recover it.

He pointed out that the Department of the Taoiseach had already said its priority was to maintain the continuity of the tribunal.

This prompted further questions from the committee as to whether the tribunal barristers had held the State 'over a barrel' by threatening to walk out.

Mr McCormack said there was no danger of anybody walking out if their pay was being reduced from €2,500 to €2,250 per day.

The committee heard that the fees paid to tribunal barristers were reduced by 8pc last year and by a further 8pc this year, in line with government cutbacks to professional fees.

But Mr Coughlan, for example, was paid for working 304 days in 2008 even though the tribunal has only held an average of 20 days of public sittings for each of the last three years.

The tribunal has maintained all its barristers are involved in further investigative work outside of the public sittings.

Mr McCormack questioned why there was no "clock-in" system for tribunal lawyers, just like there was for TDs.

"There were 280 days when they weren't clocking in, nobody knew what they were doing, yet they were paid €2,500 (per day) anyway. It's extraordinary," he said.

The tribunal has said its lawyers worked well in excess of the eight hours per day they were paid for.

Fianna Fail TD Michael McGrath referred to the fact that tribunal barristers who had earned in excess of €8m had been personally chosen by tribunal chairmen and without any public procurement process

"Tribunal chairmen are not above the law," he said.

"I don't think that's satisfactory at all."

Irish Independent

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