A LEADING public relations firm with close links to Taoiseach Enda Kenny won a lucrative contract with state training agency FAS as Fine Gael swept to power, the Irish Independent has learned.
The minister with responsibility for FAS, Ruairi Quinn, last night refused to criticise the granting of the contract to consultants Fleishman Hillard, insisting he had no role in it.
Fleishman's head of consulting, Mark Mortell, was one of the architects of Fine Gael's historic election victory. He was a key adviser to Mr Kenny and also played a critical role in the coalition negotiations with the Labour Party.
The decision to award the two-year contract -- estimated to be worth around €300,000 -- was made on February 25, the day of the general election.
The full FAS board was notified on March 1, just days before Fine Gael and Labour agreed a coalition deal.
The awarding of the contract led to opposition accusations that friends of Fine Gael picked up state contracts as the party prepared for power.
But Mr Mortell insisted there was no "cronyism" involved in the process.
While in opposition, Fine Gael accused Fianna Fail of awarding contracts to PR companies it had strong links with. The party dubbed the firm Q4 "friends of Fianna Fail".
The party also consistently highlighted the friendship between Brian Cowen and PR man Fintan Drury, who also previously served on the board of the now nationalised Anglo Irish Bank.
Mr Mortell, who took a break from Fleishman to work with Fine Gael on the election, said last night: "There were no strokes pulled here."
He insisted he was not involved in the competition for the process since he was working with Fine Gael at the time.
However, his name was used to persuade FAS executives, including director general Paul O'Toole, of the merits of the Fleishman presentation.
Mr Mortell and Mr O'Toole know each from their time working together in Bord Failte.
Mr Mortell was appointed chairman of Bord Failte in 1997 by Mr Kenny, who was then Tourism Minister in the Rainbow Coalition.
The contract for providing consultancy for FAS as it restructures its organisation was finalised after the general election, but presentations by interested parties were made before polling day.
The decision to award the contract was made by a four-member "tender panel", which included Mr O'Toole, on February 25, the day of the election.
FAS already has its own internal communications unit, employing three people who will not lose their jobs.
Mr Mortell said the contract would involve "getting the message" right for the agency as it underwent restructuring. He said it would primarily be about communication to staff and people who used FAS services, but would also involve communication with the wider public.
Seven companies in total were invited to tender for the job, and this is the first time Fleishman has won a FAS contract.
"I know my name was probably included in the pitch process because I would know Paul O'Toole fairly well," Mr Mortell said last night.
"There's no cronyism story here. I make no secret about what my business is. I've worked in Fleishman Hillard for the last nine or 10 years but we haven't been in a position where Fine Gael has been in Government so we're in slightly new territory here for me in that respect.
"There was another team pretty much involved in it. Obviously, my relationship, because I knew Paul, was included in the mix but there's no funny games going on here."
However, Fianna Fail's Michael McGrath, a prominent member of the Public Accounts Committee in the last Dail and his party's spokesman on public spending and financial-sector reform, said Fine Gael had always been quick to criticise such moves.
"While in opposition, Fine Gael was very vocal about state contracts awarded to companies whose senior management had any connection whatever with Fianna Fail," he said. "Now the shoe is on the other foot and this appears to be a very lucrative contract awarded by FAS to a company among whose directors is somebody who was very much to the fore of the election campaign."
Mr Mortell said he could "understand how Fianna Fail would try and say now friends of Fine Gael [are] taking advantage of Fine Gael being in Government," but insisted there were no "strokes" pulled.
A spokeswoman for FAS said Mr Fleishman would provide "internal and external" communications support during a process that would see the Department of Social Protection take over some of the agency's employment and community services.