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Tuesday 20 November 2018

Cowen defends FAS chief in travel bill fury

Michael Brennan Political Correspondent

Taoiseach Brian Cowen last night became embroiled in the controversy over "outrageous" spending of taxpayers' money by the head of FAS.

As Rody Molloy faced calls to quit his €203,000 post, Mr Cowen expressed his full confidence in a man he described as "an excellent public servant".

It followed a day of anger after Mr Molloy attempted to defend the lavish spending -- including €643,000 on transatlantic travel over the past four years -- which sparked fury among taxpayers.

The State training agency director- general admitted to:

l Playing expensive rounds of golf in Florida.

l Flying his wife to the US on business trips.

l Paying for hair and nail care for clients

l And footing the bill for employees' pay-per-view films in hotels.

Opposition politicians were infuriated by Mr Molloy's claims that he was "entitled to travel first class" and that he was playing golf in Florida to "develop relationships" with officials from the US space agency NASA.

Fine Gael enterprise spokesman Leo Varadkar called for the resignation of Mr Molloy, saying his position was now untenable.

"If FAS is to survive at all, we need somebody to clean it up and it's fairly clear, given his attitude to taxpayers' money, that he's not the person to do it," he said.

Mr Varadkar said the €643,000 spent on transatlantic travel over the past four years was an outrageous waste of taxpayers' money at a time when FAS should be focusing on retraining and upskilling unemployed workers. But Mr Molloy, who is from Birr, Co Offaly, received the public backing of Taoiseach Brian Cowen for the second time this year.

Mr Cowen said he knew him personally as "an excellent public servant down the years" who he always had confidence in.

Last June, he also defended Mr Molloy in the Dail saying that he was "a person whom I personally hold in the highest regard and whose integrity I would defend at all times".

As head of FAS, Mr Molloy is in charge of 2,200 employees, and oversees a budget of €1bn. He earns an annual salary of €203,000 and received a performance-related bonus of €35,458 last year.

But he is due to face intense questioning at the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday. It has already been investigating the failure by FAS to secure value for money for its €9m advertising budget.

The committee chairman, Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen, confirmed last night that it received documentation about the travel and subsistence spending and will be examining it along with the other issues.

In a wide-ranging interview with RTE's Pat Kenny yesterday, Mr Molloy described the cost of paying for pay-per-view films for employees as "chickenfeed" and said the $410 spent on paying for a hair and nail salon bill in Florida for a FAS client was "very, very small" in terms of the overall package.

According to documents obtained by independent Senator Shane Ross, senior FAS executives had credit cards with limits of €76,000 and there were also bills for meals in establishments such as the five-star Merrion Hotel in Dublin of almost €7,000, including €1,724 for wine and €908 for tips.

Expense

Mr Molloy denied that FAS was not checking expense claims propertly, saying that "people only get what they're entitled to".

He defended his decision to bring his wife Noreen to the USA at taxpayers' expense, saying that he got two business flights instead of a first-class one for himself.

Mr Molloy said that he appreciated that taxpayers might feel outraged at the cost of his air travel. "We travelled on a first-class ticket to the US, if we shouldn't have, I apologise, but we broke no rules and no regulations," he said.

According to Mr Varadkar, TDs are not allowed to fly first class and under Oireachtas rules can only fly business class if their flight is five hours or more.

There is no ban on the use of first-class flights in the official Department of Finance guidelines, which also apply to FAS.

But a spokesman said the guideline made it clear that the best value for money had to be obtained at all times by getting the "cheapest flights available".

The Revenue Commissioners said benefit-in-kind tax could apply to flight tickets used by the spouse of a business person under some circumstances. But a spokesman said it would depend on whether the spouse was taking part in business activities -- such as attending a conference.

FAS chairman Peter McLoone was not available for comment last night. FAS was asked last night if the agency was able to approve its own expenses and if the board was required to sign off on them. It was not available for comment.

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