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Friday 20 September 2019

Email allegations 'never raised with data watchdog'

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Email monitoring allegations linked to an investigation by the State's ethics watchdog into planning irregularities have never been raised with the Data Protection Commissioner.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) made serious findings against two Mayo county councillors following allegations first revealed by the Sunday Independent.

Fine Gael councillor Cyril Burke and Frank Durcan, an Independent member of the council, were found to have breached the code of ethics for councillors. Mayo County Council chief executive Peter Hynes was cleared of any wrongdoing following a lengthy investigation.

This newspaper previously revealed Sipo received allegations of email monitoring in Mayo County Council during its investigation into the two councillors.

A senior figure working at the council wrote to Sipo claiming "sensitive emails" sent by the watchdog to local authority staff may have been accessed by individuals other than the intended recipients.

"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.

The Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) yesterday confirmed it received a "notification" from the council earlier this year.

"However, it is not clear if this issue is the same as the one you are enquiring about. The notification that the DPC received did not include the information that you are referring to," the spokesperson added. The council did not respond to requests for comment.

The Sunday Independent has separately confirmed the Data Protection Commissioner has not received any complaints about email monitoring from Sipo despite the serious allegations made by the Mayo County Council complainant.

Sipo is not obliged to make a complaint to the Commissioner. However, a source in the Data Protection Commissioner's office said they were "very surprised" the ethics watchdog had not raised the issue with them given the gravity of what is being alleged.

The source said the Data Protection Commissioner cannot launch an investigation into allegations of email monitoring without first receiving a complaint.

"I'm very surprise we have not received any direct complaint about these claims and I hope someone does come forward so we can investigate the matter," the source added.

A Sipo spokesperson said the watchdog completed its investigation into councillors Durcan and Burke and Mr Hynes and would not be making any comment "beyond what is contained in the reports".

Sipo's findings against the two councillors were based on recorded conversations between the two councillors in which they discussed securing planning permission for Mr Durcan.

In one recording, Mr Burke is heard suggesting to Mr Durcan he should withdraw Freedom of Information requests relating to a senior council staff member if he wanted to receive planning permission for a site he owned.

Both councillors were found to have acted "recklessly" and not in "good faith" in their interactions which took place over a number of months in 2014.

The complaint to Sipo was originally raised by Mr Durcan and he also raised the matter with gardai.

However, the commission was critical of evidence given by both councillors during tribunal hearings which were held in private. Mr Durcan was critical of Sipo's decision to hold the inquiry behind closed doors.

Sunday Independent

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