Tuesday 16 January 2018

HSE chief's visit to US came out of 'slush fund'

Litany of waste by public officials revealed as Pac probe gathers pace

SCANDAL: Matt Merrigan spent taxpayers’ money
SCANDAL: Matt Merrigan spent taxpayers’ money

DANIEL McCONNELL Political Correspondent Exclusive

One of Health Minister James Reilly's chief lieutenants in the HSE was among the coterie of 19 senior public officials who travelled on trips to the US, paid out of the controversial €4.4m Matt Merrigan Siptu 'slush fund', which is now under garda investigation.

Today, based on internal HSE audits and documents given to the Public Accounts Committee, the Sunday Independent reveals the full extent of the 'unauthorised' fund and how taxpayers' money was spent on lavish dinners, hotels and foreign trips across the world.

Our revelations come as it has been confirmed that the Pac is to meet in private session with its legal adviser on Tuesday to begin the process of compelling Mr Merrigan and other "hostile witnesses" to appear before it.

Described as the "perfect crime" at last Thursday's PAC meeting by Labour's Derek Nolan, the confidential documents obtained by this newspaper reveal:

* The net cost to the taxpayer for this "unauthorised fund" has been €3.15m, yet no official either in the HSE or the Department of Health has received any sanction for their role in it.

* Barry O'Brien, now national director of human resources, was among a coterie of senior officials who travelled, at the expense of the taxpayer, overseas.

In response yesterday, a HSE spokesman said: "It is important to note that on both occasions Barry had travelled in his own time by taking annual leave, he claimed no subsistence or expenses, he was in a less senior role and that he co-operated fully with Turlough O'Sullivan's report."

* Officials often travelled with their spouses on the trips.

* €1.1m of the fund was spent on travel, hospitality and marketing, which was found to be "outside the scope of the fund's original objective".

* The total cost of trips across the world was €598,000 and invited officials "simply had to show up at the airport and collect their tickets".

* Over seven years, in total, 74 trips abroad were taken at the taxpayers' expense to destinations including 25 trips to New York, Boston, California, Georgia, Milan, Paris, Brussels and five trips to Lanzarote, Hong Kong and Australia.

* Another official, Bernard Carey, who was the Department of Health official who sanctioned the transfer of money into the fund, travelled on five out of six "junkets" to the United States, around St Patrick's Day between 2004 and 2009, which were all paid for out of that same fund.

* The names of those top officials and union officials who travelled across the globe at our expense. They were: Siptu officials Matt Merrigan and Jack Kelly; Aiden Brown (HSE); Michael McDonald (HSE); Barry O'Brien (HSE); Alan Smith (general manager of Skill training scheme); Larry Walsh (Health Services National Partnership Forum); Se O'Connor (HSE); Caroline O'Regan and Ann Judge (Skill); Marian Larkin (HSE); Tom Dowling (Department of Finance); retired Department of Health official Frank Ahern; Bernard Carey (Department of Health); Conal Devine (described as an IR practitioner); Frank Kelly (Local Authority); G O'Brien (NI Disability Forum); Peter Bunting (ICTU); P Harvey (North West Health Board); and three unidentified individuals Brian Bird, John O'Dowd and Paul Donnelly.

* It has been confirmed that the restaurant/bar in which Mr Merrigan spent €46,000 was the Halfway House pub and its adjoining Mulberry Restaurant on the Navan Road in Dublin.

* Refunds for the travel of spouses amounting to €139,000 rose dramatically when the scandal first broke back in 2010. In total €82,000 was repaid in 2010 alone, compared with just €3,200 in 2007.

* Cheques made out to cash amounting to €42,000 have now been referred to the Revenue Commissioners for investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

* Siptu "bizarrely" paid €76,000 to simply see a Grant Thornton report, commissioned by Mr Merrigan to defend himself once questions began to be asked, but did not make a copy of it and entered a legal agreement not to reveal its contents to any third party.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, PAC member and Fine Gael TD Simon Harris said: "This scandal gives a real insight into the culture in the civil service, it is incredible that this went on unabated for so long.

"They really put the social into social partnership.

"It is simply ridiculous and farcical that no one shouted stop, and clearly there was a complicit culture within the HSE to go along with this. But we need answers and that is why we must now seek to compel these witnesses to come before us."

His chairman, John McGuinness, concurred, saying: "The committee must be allowed do its work. We will meet our legal adviser to see how we can get that Grant Thornton report, but also how to get these witnesses come before us. This is an unprecedented step by the PAC."

SEE FULL REPORT P8 & 9

Irish Independent

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