| 15.8°C Dublin

How we paid for life coaching, potted plants and sandwiches

THE Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources spent tens of thousands of euro of taxpayers' money on life coaching courses, bicycles, taxis and sponsorship under ministers Noel Dempsey and his replacement, Eamon Ryan.

Documents released to the Sunday Independent under the Freedom of Information Act detail all departmental spending of over €500 per item between 2007 to the end of August 2010. Some of the spending is quite remarkable according to the files, which we obtained last Thursday.

The Irish Lifecoach Institute was paid €600 for 'training conference services' in August 2008.

An incredible €67,000 was spent on potted plants and landscape services by the department, which has a budget of €273m for this year. Administration of the government department was pencilled in at €26.8m for this year with wages and salaries taking up about €16.3m of the total bill. A number of different gardening and plant companies were paid by the department between 2007 to 2010. Greenscene was paid €11,396 in 2009, €13,019 in 2008 and over €15,800 in 2007, with Foley Landscaping another €7,596 in 2009, €7,300 in 2008 and €12,144 in 2007.

Departmental spending is set to come under the cosh with massive cuts expected when the Government announces its four-year budgetary plan next month as it seeks to cut the near €20bn deficit. Current spending has already been cut in the last two budgets but up to €4bn is expected to be hacked off government expenditure.

The department also spent heavily on entertainment and conferences with Dax Wine Bar netting €1,792.12 in 2007, and the Shelbourne Hotel earning €1,793. In May 2008, the department lashed out €2,638 at restaurant One Pico for "conference/meeting expenses", according to the documents. Bang Restaurant, formerly owned by the Stokes brothers, was paid €1,180 the same year. The Westbury Hotel was paid €2,750 in 2008 for conference facilities. Ballyhack Enterprises, a company associated with Horse Racing Ireland, received €968 for "official entertainment".

The documents also reveal spending on "official entertainment" with a bill for €1,105 for a send-off for "a former media advisor to minister Dempsey" as well as a €2,400 bill for a shindig for a former civil servant in 2007. Entertaining the Joint Services Committee cost the taxpayer €659 in 2007. Various award ceremonies were also expensive, with "official entertainment" for the eGovernment Awards hitting €3,900 and a knees-up for Eirgrid costing almost €1,100.

It seems that no one attending a meeting at the department goes hungry, judging by the amount shelled out for sandwiches. Catering companies made €50,000 feeding conference and meeting attendees there in 2009 and 2010.

Water coolers were also part of the taxpayers' bill for the department, with close to €21,500 spent at Allwater Systems since 2007.

The image of the department was clearly hugely important, given the huge sums of money spent on PR consultants and photography. In 2007 alone, more than €23,000 was spent on photography at Maxwells, with almost €10,000 spent in 2008. This year and last year alone, the department splashed out close to €120,000 on big public relations and ad guru names such as Brindley Advertising and Murray Consultants among others. Unique Media, Corporate PR, Carr Communications and Pinnacle PR are among the recipients of taxpayer funds in 2007 and 2008. But getting the message out without baffling the population was also high on the agenda as the Plain English Campaign was paid €2,048 by the department.

Transparency is a big issue also. There is a lavish window cleaning spend, which cost the department over €30,000 this year and last year.

The department also employed a bouillabaisse of consultants for everything from IT to branding. In 2009 alone, it spent nearly €200,000 on all manner of them, from lawyers such as top firm Mason Hayes Curran to accountants KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Le-gal big wigs Arthur Cox made over €50,000 last year in fees.

But the biggest earner of all was British engineering firm David Fox & Associates, which was paid €187,000 for consultancy services in 2009.

If public service pay cuts become too much to bear, senior department staff can take heart from the lucrative consultancy opportunities available for ex-staff. Set up by a department employee on a career break, Gerard Keane's Keane Offshore Integrity made €88,609 for consultancy work in 2009. KPMG bagged €181,500 for "non-IT consulting" in 2007 alone. Marketing and brand consultants W5 was paid €3,630 the same year. Dyno-Rod was paid €1430 by the taxpayer. NCB Corporate finance earned €48,600 from the department.

Telecommunications spending was scattered over a number of different companies, with Vodafone and O2 getting fees for mobile phones and Eircom, Smart Telecom, Nextiarone, Lan Communications and Total Telecoms all providing services to the department. Former Communications Regulator Isolde Goggin was paid €1,815 relating to a conference.

The spectre of the Moriarty tribunal continues to hang over the department's expenses, costing it over €60,000 to date this year and well over €100,000 last year. Barristers and solicitors are the big winners, with one counsel being paid over €60,000 last year and another pocketing more than €40,000 in the list of 'tribunal expenses'.

Bank of Ireland -- now almost 40 per cent owned by the State -- was a big beneficiary of departmental spending, bagging €9,200 in 'bank charges' in 2008 alone. The department also spent close to €2,560 on 'travel insurance' with Brennan Insurance receiving €765 and KMT Travel Insurance earning €1,794 for 'travel fees' in 2007. Car rescue outfit AA Ireland earned €1,666 from the department.

The department also sanctioned the spending of €1,010 at fridge company Fridgemaster. The Royal Rubber stamp company picked up €641.30. Box and storage firm Archival Box Company was paid €4,689. Vending machine operator Autobar was paid €2,400 in 2007 with Island Beverages, purveyors of coffee machines, netting €8,107.

VIP and Ace taxis were paid €693 for 'home taxis' in 2007 with another payment of €659 the following year. Dave Long coaches was paid €818 for 'home travel'. Travel was rather expensive for the department, which picked up a €1,600 bill for 'repairs to car' as well as paying Citroen, Ford and Fiat for cars.

The Department of Communications was also rather behind the curve when it came to new technology, with not one but five fax machines bought two years ago at a cost of €666.50 each.

The taxpayer also footed the bill for sponsorship too. The documents reveal that €5,000 was spent sponsoring the Cork Environmental forum, with the European Movement receiving €1,300 in sponsorship. University College Cork got €8,000 in 'sponsorship' with the European Youth Parliament picking up €20,000. Sustainable Ireland Co-op was listed as receiving €7,500 in 2008 and the European Association of Geo-scientists being paid €1,000.

A department headed up by a Green minister might be expected to be conscious of saving trees, but it is an enthusiastic printer of scores of booklets and documents, spending €65,000 on "printing and binding" this year and in 2009 alone.

Intriguingly the department also found money to pay for a value-for-money consultancy study, with Epsilon earning €5,808 for the work.

Sunday Independent