Monday 24 June 2019

Council 'may have monitored' emails sent by ethics watchdog

Philip Ryan Deputy Political Editor

The State's ethics watchdog has been told emails linked to its investigation into alleged planning irregularities at Mayo County Council may have been monitored by senior staff working for the local authority.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) was told that correspondence involved in its investigation could be linked to an email-monitoring controversy which has caused serious tensions among staff at Mayo County Council.

Council chief executive Peter Hynes, Fine Gael councillor Cyril Burke and Independent councillor Frank Durcan are being investigated by Sipo in relation to the alleged planning irregularities.

The Sunday Independent has seen a letter sent to Sipo by an individual working at the council who claimed "sensitive emails" sent by the watchdog may have been accessed.

"I have been told that emails sent by you [Sipo] to staff members have been accessed also," said the source, who did not want to be named.

Last year, senior IT staff at Mayo County Council raised concerns about the monitoring of email accounts used by local authority employees and councillors.

The concerns were raised directly with senior management who told staff they were permitted to monitor emails.

The Sunday Independent has also confirmed union officials were asked to intervene in the dispute.

A Forsa union source with knowledge of the dispute said it was "one of the most difficult" cases they had encountered. The union asked for an independent investigation into the claims.

Two other sources confirmed the email-monitoring complaints were raised by county councillors at a meeting with council chief executive Mr Hynes and other senior staff.

The councillors were told the issue would be addressed and the local authority would report back to them.

However, to date the councillors have not been informed of the investigation's outcome.

Mayo County Council director of communications Liam Hanrahan also confirmed he received complaints from senior IT staff over the monitoring of emails.

"Last year we had concerns but they didn't arise to anything," Mr Hanrahan said.

"The complaints didn't arise to disciplinary action, protected disclosure or data protection."

Mr Hanrahan said he told employees who complained about the alleged data breach that the local authority had a policy which allowed it to monitor emails.

He also said the council had not received a protected disclosure from any member of staff related to the complaints.

In response to a series of queries, Sipo said: "It is the practice of the Standards in Public Office Commission not to comment on individual compliance matters. Therefore, I cannot comment on the matters you raise."

The Data Protection Commissioner said it had not been contacted by either Mayo County Council or Sipo about the complaint. The Sipo investigation relates to allegations of planning irregularities first revealed by the Sunday Independent three years ago.

According to Sipo's website, Mr Hynes, Mr Burke and Mr Durcan are alleged to have contravened the ethical frameworks for the Local Government Service.

The hearing was held in private following an application by a barrister acting for Mr Burke, which was supported by Mr Hynes' legal counsel.

Mr Durcan wanted the investigation to be held in public.

Sunday Independent

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