We got it wrong on 52-spouse 'junket' says watchdog
Red faces over trip blunder
Published 04/02/2010 | 05:00
A SO-CALLED "super-junket" that the state spending watchdog claimed to have exposed in a hard-hitting report never took place, the Irish Independent has learned.
Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) John Buckley last night admitted the embarrassing blunder after a host of state organisations denied they were the unnamed body referred to in the report.
The Irish Independent also learned the Central Bank is the body the C&AG placed at the centre of the junket controversy.
The report, a survey of foreign travel at 20 state organisations, claimed one body used taxpayers' money to bring the spouses of 52 staff members on a single trip.
Last night, it emerged that the Central Bank did use public cash so 52 spouses could accompany employees abroad. But this was spread over 49 separate trips in 2007 and 2008.
The initial claim in Mr Buckley's report caused consternation in political circles and led the Public Accounts Committee to announce it planned to investigate the supposed junket.
But after standing over the contents of the report for several days, the C&AG last night admitted an error had been made.
The saga is certain to spark questions about other reports on spending compiled by the watchdog.
Last night's statement said the C&AG's office had interpreted information supplied by a state organisation as meaning 52 spouses went on a single trip. The report was amended yesterday after officials from the Central Bank contacted the C&AG's office to correct the record.
The embarrassing gaffe emerged just days after the C&AG's office was strongly criticised by a former FAS board member for failing to spot problems at the state training agency over the course of several years.
The revelation also comes as a major embarrassment for the Central Bank, which appears to be somewhat out of step with other state organisations, most of whom do not cover the cost when spouses travel abroad with staff members.
A spokeswoman for the Central Bank said: "The travel policy of the organisation provides for where a formal spouse's programme is provided by the host institution, spouses' travel may be allowed on an exceptional basis."
The spokeswoman refused to clarify what was "exceptional" about the 49 different trips.
The majority of the trips are understood to have been to Frankfurt, where officials have European Central Bank business. A smaller number of visits are thought to have been made to London and Paris.
Although the report was published last Thursday, the Central Bank stayed silent on the issue until last night.
It finally released a statement after being informed by the Irish Independent that every other body mentioned in the C&AG's travel survey had denied using taxpayers' money to bring spouses abroad.
In the statement, the Central Bank attempted to minimise the damage, saying the flights for spouses were a tiny fraction of the 2,700 separate trips staff members took in 2007 and 2008.
It also laid the blame for the controversy at the door of the C&AG's office, saying it had got its facts wrong.
"The C&AG's office clearly misinterpreted one of our responses and published this information without checking the accuracy of their statement," the statement said.
However, the C&AG's office said it simply published information given to it in good faith.
The furore is the latest in a series of controversies involving the C&AG's office in recent years.
Last week, former FAS board member Niall Saul questioned the competence of the office.
He said that as FAS's external auditor it had failed to pick up on any of the problems at the agency until after they were highlighted by internal audits.
The office was also criticised in 2008 after staff there failed to inform authorities that laptops had been stolen containing sensitive information about hundreds of thousands of people.