Chairperson of KWETB denies there was a 'circling of the wagons' after issues came to light
THE chairperson of the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board (KWETB) has denied there was a "circling of the wagons" after issues at the State-run body came to light.
A meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is looking at issues around procurement and governance at KWETB during the tenure of its former chief executive and also focused on its financial statements from 2015.
A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) investigated lapses in controls over procurement, cost overruns and other financial matters at KWETB.
A separate Department of Education investigation, conducted by Richard Thorn, president emeritus of Sligo IT, was published last year, following which education minister Richard Bruton used a legal power to formally instruct KWETB to improve its governance.
This morning a number of KWETB board members appeared before the PAC including its new chief executive Dr Deirdre Keyes, several of its directors and chairperson Noel Merrick.
TD Catherine Murphy said that a review of the report suggested there was a "circling of the wagons" when issues first came to light, but this was rejected by Mr Merrick.
"I would't accept that, we were very shocked by it. It all happened very quickly," the KWETB chairperson said, adding that Robert Thorn had been appointed following the audit to carry out an investigation on behalf of the Department of Education.
Deputy Murphy, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said there "seemed efforts of some members of the board to raise issues and it was being calmed down, or wagons were being circled, and that appeared to be the case for me."
The committee also heard that the chief executive at the time was also chief of Kildare VEC- a predecessor to KWETB- when it was subject to a supplementary report over issues surrounding procurement.
David Cullinane told the PAC that a report by then C&AG John Buckley on January 17, 2012 "raised issues in relation to procurement" at Kildare VEC in 2010. This was the "genesis" to the ongoing issue before the committee today, he said.
Later a "redeployment process" was undertaken to fill the role of chief executive for KWETB, and that the Department of Education signed off on this.
David Cullinane questioned if this was a concern that an individual, who was chief executive of the Kildare VEC when concerns around procurement were raised, was later redeployed into the role of chief executive for the KWETB.
Department of Education Secretary General Sean O'Foghlú said that the process was an appropriate process to undertake due to a surplus of up to 20 CEOs for education services.
In her opening address, KWETB's new chief executive Dr Deirdre Keyes- who was appointed last June- said that the organisation was cooperating fully with the garda investigation and that significant resources were appointed to assist investigators.
An investigation by the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) is ongoing into certain matters at the education service.
“Considerable resources and time have had to be diverted to this investigation. Despite this, our core work has continued and I am indebted to our teachers, tutors, leaders and support staff who are committed to the service of teaching and learning in our ETB,” Dr Keyes said.
“Whilst acknowledging and accepting the seriousness of the findings of both reports, I hope that I can provide assurances to the committee that KWETB has set about to build a robust culture of corporate governance, building on the policies and controls that had previously been in place but strengthening them in areas of oversight and internal control in, but not limited to, the key areas as identified in both reports,” Dr Keyes said.
PAC committee members and guest speakers were warned by chair Sean Fleming prior to the meeting commencing that certain issues and individuals could not be discussed in detail due to the ongoing garda investigation.
Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane questioned why acts allowing for the removal or suspension of a chief executive by the board never enacted when the concerns came to light.
"The board, in my view, never sought to remove any individual, despite all of the issues that had been raised. This is meant to ensure there are checks and balances...not once did the board- that I'm aware of- in terms of your examination of this was there ever an effort made by the board."
Chairperson Noel Merrick told the committee that there was "some talk" at board level regarding disciplinary action, and that the procedures are very strictly laid out.
Asked to elaborate, Mr Merrick said: "We had legal advice at a meeting one day...probably October or November 2017, and the advice that was there were procedures were there it was up to anybody on the board to propose those things. I don't believe there was a motion proposed and heard. It needs a 75pc vote...there was never a formal discussion," Mr Merrick said.
Department of Education official Seán Ó Foghlú said that the Department did not raise the possibility of a disciplinary process at the time.