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Sunday 18 February 2018

Jolly jaunts of the Bull and his wife on our tab

Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue shares a birthday with former Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism John O'Donoghue.

Her 1988 number one single I Should Be So Lucky could have been penned for the Kerryman, who spent the best part of six years travelling the world, staying in some of the finest five-star hotels, eating in top restaurants and having the best seats at some of the most sought-after sporting and cultural events, all at our expense.

When Bertie Ahern formed a coalition government with the PDs in 1997, O'Donoghue became Minister of the enlarged and increasingly clunky Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. After the 2002 general election he was demoted to Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism.

However, no other Cabinet ministry comes with such excellent perks. O'Donoghue hoovered them up: his five-year tenure was an orgy of overspending and self-gratification. During a 42-month period between 2002 and 2005, O'Donoghue travelled abroad 48 times, with his wife Kate Ann accompanying him on at least 27 of those occasions.

This spending needs to be put in perspective. In October 2009, the principal of St John's Girls National School in Carrigaline, Co Cork, wrote to parents asking them to help the school save money by giving their children toilet paper to bring in to school. At the time of writing, a 16-pack of Kittensoft loo rolls costs €9.49, or about 59 per roll. There are around 3,300 primary schools in Ireland. O'Donoghue's travel and expenses bill would have provided each one with 280 rolls of decent loo paper.

In his five-year stint as minister, O'Donoghue attended some of the most prestigious events in the world sporting calendar. These weren't just events in which Ireland was prominent; he also turned up at events in which there was no Irish involvement.

He attended the Fifa World Cup in South Korea in 2002 and in Germany in 2006; the Uefa European Championship in Portugal in 2004; a Champions League final; Rugby World Cups in Australia and France; a Heineken Cup final; golf's Ryder Cup; compromise rules matches in Australia; race meetings at Cheltenham, Aintree, Ascot, Melbourne; and the Breeder's Cup in Texas. Any sports fan would almost have joined Fianna Fail for a shot at the job.

In his first year, O'Donoghue ventured abroad five times. He upped the ante in 2003, making more than one overseas trip per month; his wife travelled eight times courtesy of the taxpayer that year. O'Donoghue's trip to see Willie Mullins's horse Holy Orders trail in down the field in the Melbourne Cup in Australia cost over €22,000 and included an extraordinary €4,545 for a five-night stay in a suite at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne. The taxpayer was also hit with a €136 bill for the rental of a tuxedo.

O'Donoghue had a cracking year in 2004, with the Olympic Games in Athens and the Uefa European Championship in Portugal. Ireland hadn't qualified for the football tournament, but O'Donoghue evidently took the view that it was worth spending €5,500 of taxpayers' money so that he could see what we all missed.

He also went to the Ryder Cup in Detroit as well as visiting Brussels, Cheltenham, Hungary, Denmark and New York, where we paid €221 for tickets to Broadway shows for him and the wife. The most expensive jolly that year was a €22,000 visit to China.

The following year, the Kerryman travelled abroad 11 times, with the taxpayer coughing up for Mrs O'Donoghue to represent us on seven occasions. After a US junket, he claimed €10,800 for a car hire bill, and he spent a staggering €9,164 on limos during the three-day Cheltenham Festival. O'Donoghue also flew to Australia to see the Melbourne Cup again, with the whole shebang costing more than €30,000. The trip also featured spending €207 on room service and dry cleaning as well as €210 for a VIP suite at Sydney Airport.

The Cannes Film Festival was a big deal for O'Donog- hue. The taxpayer spent about €35,000 to send him there in 2005. The festival featured again the following year. In one six-day period in 2006, the minister -- and the wife -- used the government jet to fly back to Kerry from Cannes, where he'd gone to see the premiere of The Wind That Shakes the Barley. He then jetted from Kerry to Cardiff for the Heineken Cup final, where he saw Munster win the northern hemisphere's top club-rugby trophy.

O'Donoghue and his retinue returned to Cannes after the final to see Ken Loach's film pick up the Palme d'Or for best film at the festival that year. He then jetted off to a Ryder Cup event in London and back to Dublin.

The cost of using the government Learjet for this six-day whirlwind was €32,450, based on 11 hours of flying at the Department of Defence estimate of €2,950 per hour. The hotel bill for the trip to Cannes was €4,980, and limo hire cost us another €9,616.

O'Donoghue's decision to use the government jet to fly back to Kerry from Cannes for a constituency event -- the cutting of a ribbon to open a Fexco money-transfer office in Killorglin -- was almost unbelievable in its arrogance. It was estimated that the cost of using the jet to fly home and back was around €11,300.

But O'Donoghue didn't top the poll in Kerry South without being cute at local politics. Finance Minister Brian Cowen was coming down to the constituency to cut some ribbons. O'Donoghue needed to show his electorate that he was in the tent.

Other highlights of 2006 included a trip to Royal Ascot, where he was entertained in the royal box; the limo bill for that trip was €3,500. O'Donoghue's free ways with taxpayers' money extended to his staff: his private secretary, Therese O'Connor, billed the State for the rental of not one but three pieces of headgear for the race meeting. She hired a white straw hat, an orange hairpiece and a buttermilk-coloured hat from Hattitudes in Lucan, for a cost of €120. We paid the bill.

In 2007, O'Donoghue's feet barely touched the ground between the luxury hotels, limos, jets, VIP lounges and Michelin-starred restaurants. But his time was running out.

An election was called in April of that year. The country was showing the first signs of financial meltdown. But O'Donoghue still made it to Venice for the art Biennale in early June 2007. The four-night jolly saw O'Donoghue, the missus and Therese O'Connor rack up major hotel bills at the Albergo San Marco as well as another €1,130 in food bills at the splendid Hotel Cipriani and the five-star San Clemente Palace.

The Albergo San Marco would get a mention in O'Donoghue's resignation speech. It cost €312.50 per night, not €900, he said. Be that as it may, credit card receipts show that €4,561 was paid to the Albergo San Marco in June 2007.

O'Donoghue's wife did well out of her husband's ministerial gig. Not only did she get to travel the world, with her hotels, flights and limos covered by the taxpayer, but, as we can reveal here, she also claimed miscellaneous expenses from the State.

Buried in the 700-odd pages of John O'Donoghue's expenses and claims -- released under the Freedom of Information Act in July and August 2009 -- is an expense claim for €302.16, submitted in January 2006 by Kate Ann O'Donoghue "for accompanying the minister in India". It's stamped "paid" on St Valentine's Day of that year. (This was the trip that saw the minister spend €472.21 on limousines to take him from Terminal 3 in Heathrow Airport to Terminal 1 -- a journey that would have taken less than 200 seconds on the airport's free shuttle service.)

Another Kate Ann claim is for €105.86 for accompanying the minister to Birmingham and London in March 2007. Another one, for €105.05, covers trips to the World Cup final in Berlin, to Paris and to see Ireland lose 1-0 to Germany in a European qualifier in Stuttgart. Kate Ann O'Donoghue also claimed €16.21 for the trip to Royal Ascot and €212.91 for the trip to Venice. She put in a claim for €116.09 for a November 2006 junket to New York, where the taxpayer also stumped up for four nights in the Waldorf Astoria plus tickets to see Spamalot and two other shows. And there was a €70.94 claim for a trip to Turin for the opening of the Winter Olympics.

Rules permitting ministers to claim expenses on behalf of their spouses are detailed in a 1959 circular that we obtained from the Department of Finance. A minister's husband or wife may travel on a jolly only if there has been a specific invitation from the host country to the spouse, or if the minister believes that it is in "the public interest" -- which evidently amounts to a rather vague way of saying that a spouse can travel if the minister needs a cuddle before going to sleep. Any travel by husbands and wives must be cleared by the Taoiseach's private office; once this approval is granted (and this appears to be a rubber-stamping exercise), the taxpayer will then cover all travel and accommodation costs.

A ministerial spouse may receive half the subsistence rate that a minister can claim when travelling abroad. If hotels and flights are paid for, then a minister is entitled to claim the "conference rate" subsistence payment, plus up to an extra 50 per cent if travelling in the US or Canada. A minister travelling to Florida with all flights, transport and accommodation paid by the State could claim about €105 per night in subsistence payments based on the new rates introduced by the Department of Finance in January 2010. The minister's spouse could claim almost €53 per night in Florida.

(In New Zealand, by contrast, ministers wishing to travel abroad with their spouse or partner must get full cabinet approval. In June 2009 the deteriorating economic situation there saw Prime Minister John Key tell his ministers to leave their partners at home or else pay for their travel themselves.)

Following the 2007 general election, O'Donoghue took a bullet for his mediocre performance in Cabinet and lost his ministerial brief.

The Bull swung the post of Ceann Comhairle as compensation -- a largely ceremonial role that pays the same as a Cabinet post. During his two years as Ceann Comhairle, O'Donoghue cost the taxpayer nearly a quarter of a million euro on junkets, perks and self-promotion expenses. Despite the largely ceremonial role of his new office, O'Donoghue ramped up the staffing levels. His predecessor as Ceann Comhairle, Rory O'Hanlon had just three staff: a private secretary, a secretarial assistant and a clerical officer. Their combined salaries cost less than €142,000 per year. Under the Bull, staff bills rose to €470,000.

O'Donoghue personally appointed Dan Collins, formerly his ministerial press officer, as his personal political adviser, at a cost of €90,000 per year. None of O'Donoghue's predecessors in the post had had his own press and policy adviser.

O'Donoghue also had four secretarial staff and a personal assistant, all working on constituency queries.

Ordinary TDs have one secretary and a personal assistant. O'Donoghue's political career may have veered down a cul de sac, but he wasn't about to let his constituents forget about him. He famously described his office as being "above politics", and the Ceann Comhairle is automatically re-elected to the Dail, yet he still spent €11,900 advertising political clinics in his constituency. An Post also got over €2,500 for a direct-mail campaign aimed at constituents on behalf of O'Donoghue.

His travel bills -- which added up to €90,000 over two years -- were even less justifiable, given that the remit of the Ceann Comhairle does not extend beyond Leinster House. While in the post O'Donoghue -- often with his loyal wife at his side -- jetted to the four corners of the globe, visiting Cape Town, South Carolina, Hong Kong, Australia, Amsterdam, Paris, Edinburgh, Berlin, Prague, Houston, New Orleans and Lisbon.

The eight-day jolly to Cape Town in April 2008, for the 118th assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, worked out at: €10,511 for flights; €3,092.03 for hotels; €1,598.84 for other transport; and €575.37 for "official entertainment". On his St Patrick's Day junket in 2008 -- away from Cheltenham for a change -- O'Donoghue blew into Houston, Washington and New Orleans, with his limo bill alone coming to €4,956.

Flights for Mr and Mrs Bull cost €12,404, with the politician leaving a $565 tip -- at our expense -- for his driver in New Orleans.

It seemed that O'Donoghue still thought that he was minister for sport. In June 2008 the O'Donoghues travelled to Paris and Toulouse. According to the Bull's subsistence claims, he attended a conference on June 1-2 at Chantilly. The Prix de Jockey Club (aka "French Derby") just happened to be taking place at Chantilly at the same time.

On a three-day jolly to Paris in October 2008 to address parliamentarians, the O'Donoghues attended the race meeting at Longchamp on two of the three days of their visit. The world-famous Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was on at the time. While O'Donoghue watched the racing, a chauffeur-driven limo remained on stand-by outside at a cost of more than €800.

In December 2008, O'Donoghue and his wife flew to London for the opening of parliament; the visit coincided with the Winter Festival at Sandown, which the pair attended.

Although it sometimes seems that south Kerry is another world, Cahirciveen is just five hours from Dublin by car. The Office of Ceann Comhairle comes not only with the padded seat in the Dail chamber, but also a garda driver and a ministerial Mercedes. Despite the fulltime driver, O'Donoghue took 186 internal flights. His wife joined him on 44 of them.

There was little in the way of controls to stop O'Donog- hue burning through taxpayers' money on his little junkets. In fact, O'Donoghue himself had a key role in deciding Oireachtas members' travel arrangements. Oireachtas jollies and work-related overseas trips by TDs and senators are vetted by a committee chaired by the Clerk of the Dail, but it emerged that O'Donoghue himself chaired meetings of an Inter-Parliamentary Association where the details of some of these trips were planned.

The Bull was also the chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Procedure and Privileges, which, among other things, deals with issues regarding TDs' and senators' expenses. There was no system in place to audit the value of overseas travelling, nothing to gauge whether there was any benefit to Ireland whatsoever.

O'Donoghue's fall, when it came, was car-crash viewing. On Tuesday, September 15, 2009, RTE's southern correspondent Paschal Sheehy doorstepped him as he was making a bet at the Listowel races and pressed him over the spending revelations.

"I regret this, but I've also explained that these were costs paid to service providers on my behalf," said the ruddy Kerryman.

Then O'Donoghue was asked whether he should make an apology. "In so far as one regrets something, I think that is an apology," he said. John O'Donoghue's head appeared to have inserted itself up his posterior.

Belatedly realising that his career was imploding, O'Donoghue wrote to every member of the Oireachtas and later released a statement to the media. "I was not aware of the cost of these arrangements. When I read the detail in the past weeks, I was embarrassed that such costs were associated with some of the arrangements made on my behalf," he said.

It didn't stop the relentless flow of information on his spending as Ceann Comhairle. In a final gamble, O'Donoghue decided to come clean with every last detail of his spending. But he couldn't resist trying to pull a stroke in the process. At 3.15pm, on the Friday of the Lisbon Treaty vote, he lodged details of his expenses claims in the Dail Library.

Any hopes that the referendum would overshadow his revelations were misplaced. The weekend newspapers gutted him. He was finished.

There was discussion as to the procedural niceties of removing a Ceann Comhairle. The following Tuesday in the Dail, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore dramatically told him that his position was untenable: he would have to resign or be sacked.

At 10.30 that night, O'Donoghue released a statement announcing that he would resign the following week after making a statement to the Oireachtas.

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