THE hottest currency in Irish corridors of power is the envelope. Once they were brown and packed with cash. Now they are white with a postage paid stamp.
Each of our 166 TDs and 60 Senators is entitled to 1,750 free prepaid envelopes every month. An Post does not give a discount for bulk buying, so, at 48c per stamp, this perk costs taxpayers more than ?2.47m per year.
These freepost envelopes are supposed to be used for monthly communication with constituents, but too often they are stockpiled for use in elections or swapped between politicians for favours.
Fianna Fail's National Executive will decide on Thursday how to discipline Lorcan Allen, the Gorey councillor and former junior minister who forged an Taoiseach's signature on 2,500 letters seeking support in the elections.
It is not the first time this tactic has been tried. During the 2002 general election, Senator Frank Chambers, also Fianna Fail, sent a similar letter to voters. The letter claimed to be from the Taoiseach and was signed "Bertie", though neither Bertie Ahern nor the party sanctioned that letter either.
Mr Allen landed a council seat after sending his letters in which it appeared the Taoiseach was calling on voters to give their number one vote to Mr Allen and their second preference vote to the other Fianna Fail candidate, Pat Rath. Mr Rath failed tosecure a seat.
Mr Allen has admitted his deception and promised to reimburse the cost of the 2,500 prepaid envelopes he used. But he has yet to reveal where he obtained the envelopes which are only supplied to TDs and Senators.
Mr Allen did not reply to our requests for an interview last week, but it was reported he intended to argue the envelopes he used were old ones dating back to his time as a junior minister - even though he lost his seat in 1982.
Stamps at that time cost the equivalent of 33c. A spokesman for An Post said: "After the Euro changeover, we drew a line in the sand. We allowed stamps from the old currency to be used for a year and that was that. But there is nothing to stop someone using Oireachtas envelopes from way back. We don't have any checks so we have no idea what batch they come from."
Senator Jim Walsh last week admitted he had given permission for Mr Allen to take some of his supply of prepaid envelopes, but he insisted his envelopes were returned unused and Mr Allen must have obtained the controversial 2,500 prepaid envelopes containing the forged letters elsewhere.
Senator Walsh said Mr Allen's use of publicly-funded envelopes made him "no better nor no worse than anyone else - though they normally would be used for bona fide correspondence".
Senator Walsh added: "Some months ago he saw envelopes in my office and said, 'I must get some off you'. I said to him about the guidelines and what they were to be used for, but he would have been aware of that."
He said he "forgot" about the promise, until Mr Allen turned up at his office when he was out and took three boxes of 500 envelopes.
"He took the whole month's allocation. That wasn't my intention. I couldn't have afforded that many. If he had only taken one box I might not have pursued it," Senator Walsh said.
He claims he rang Mr Allen asking for his envelopes to be returned, which they were. He said: "I got the three boxes back. My name was scrawled across them so I can say the ones that went out were categorically not my envelopes."
Despite the cost to the taxpayer, there are no rules referring specifically to the use of Oireachtas prepaid envelopes. Nor is there any regulation forbidding the distribution of election material in prepaid envelopes.
The nearest there is to a set of guidelines is the Ethics in Public Office Act which says: "In performing their official duties, members must apply public resources prudently and only for the purposes for which they are intended."
In May 2002, Fianna Fail general election candidate Des Kelly won a case in the High Court arguing that sitting TDs and Senators who were running for election had an unfair advantage over candidates who did not have access to such perks as prepaid Oireachtas envelopes. He also won a subsequent Supreme Court case.
Yet there were a number of incidences of TDs using prepaid envelopes for electioneering purposes this year. Voters in County Cork received a letter featuring prominent pictures of Fine Gael Deputy Gerard Murphy and his wife Marian which urged voters to vote for Mrs Murphy. The letters were posted in prepaid Oireachtas envelopes.
A spokesman for the Oireachtas said Deputy Murphy was not breaking regulations by using his envelopes to canvas support for his wife who was duly elected onto Cork County Council.
In County Galway, thousands of voters received letters in prepaid Oireachtas envelopes from Fianna Fail councillor Michael 'The Stroke' Fahy. Mr Fahy said he had used the envelopes to "show influence".
He said: "I wanted to show I had the support of the Oireachtas members and if I hadn't done it like the other candidates, it would seem like I didn't have the same clout."
Another Fianna Fail election candidate, Marguerite Fitzpatrick, also used the publicly-funded envelopes to canvas votes in the Dublin Central Constituency.
Fianna Fail MEP Eoin Ryan has said he knows nothing about the use of 400 of his Oireachtas envelopes to send material in support of local election candidate Garry Keegan in his constituency.
Last week Tanaiste Mary Harney told the Dail: "I believe Oireachtas envelopes were used widely by a number of sides in this House in the recent local election campaign. I have in my possession some letters sent out by deputies seeking support, not all from the Government side."
All Fianna Fail TDs, Senators and councillors were sent a letter last Friday reminding them of the proper use of prepaid Oireachtas envelopes.
A Fianna Fail spokesman said: "The letter says in no uncertain terms that no councillor is entitled to take or use an Oireachtas envelope."