Watchdog toothless to police corporate funding
Published 16/02/2012 | 05:00
The State ethics watchdog is ultimately toothless when it comes to policing donations to the political parties
The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) has frequently bemoaned the lax guidelines to the laws on donations and expressed frustration with the system
It has called for changes to the law so that there is greater oversight and accountability. Invariably, its warnings were ignored by the previous government.
The weakness of the Standards Commission lies not in its membership or staff but the tight legislation under which it must operate.
In a number of reports on donations declared by the parties, SIPO said the law on the issue was clearly "ineffective".
Fine Gael's failure to declare a single donation -- albeit perfectly legally -- during Enda Kenny's period as party leader, when the party was not averse to accepting corporate cash, clearly points to anomalies in the system.
Yet SIPO's ability to conduct investigations into the party's fundraising activities is extremely limited and effectively non-existent.
Under the existing law, a party has to declare a donation only if it exceeds €5,078.95, meaning it can take as many sums as it likes below that threshold and not reveal them.
Parties cannot accept donations in excess of €6,348.
Prior to 2002, there were no upper limits on the size of donations, provided the sums were disclosed. Since then, the maximum donation a party can accept from one donor in any one year is €6,348.
Though sums above this limit have often been donated, political parties can find ways of getting the donation in under the radar of what has to be declared.
The parties can shoehorn the donation below the maximum limit allowed or even below the declarable level.
This can legitimately be done by subtracting fundraising costs -- such as the cost of holding a dinner or a golf classic -- from the sum donated to bring the declarable donation under the limit allowed by the rules.
Subtracting such costs can also legitimately bring the amount of the donation under the €5,078 threshold, so that it doesn't have to be declared at all.
The Standards Commission is the independent body charged with oversight of the Ethics and Electoral legislation.