Sunday 21 January 2018

Ministers refuse to discuss fears over planning

DANIEL McCONNELL CHIEF REPORTER

Councillors lodge complaint alleging files relating to 'bad administration' were shredded

Two Labour councillors have this weekend complained to the Standards in Public Office (SIPO) about one of their own minister's "failure" to meet them to discuss their concerns on planning and housing irregularities in Wicklow, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Just a month following the conviction of Dungarvan Councillor Fred Forsey for corruption, Environment Minister Phil Hogan and his Junior Minister Jan O'Sullivan are under fire to launch an investigation into alleged corrupt activities in Wicklow.

Three Wicklow councillors -- Labour's Barry Nevin and James O'Shaughnessy and Independent Thomas Cullen -- have repeatedly sought meetings with both ministers.

Having been denied a meeting with Mr Hogan, the councillors took their complaint to Ms O'Sullivan, who has also refused to meet them. She is now the subject of their complaint to SIPO.

The 12-page complaint was handed into SIPO on Friday and comprises 21 separate "issues of concern" and the councillors are seeking a full inquiry into alleged "bad administration" in Wicklow.

The councillors complained that the Department of the Environment committed to the High Court last November that it would cover the estimated €50m cost of remediating an illegal dump in west Wicklow, a commitment not signed off at Cabinet.

"Several ministers, including Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, have confirmed they were unaware of the department's undertaking to the High Court to expose the State to these costs," the complaint states.

In response, the department said the cost had not yet been fully established and it had to act to tackle the site under threat of European fines. The councillors also allege files relating to various issues of "bad administration" were "deliberately shredded" by council staff. They are also seeking clarity as to why an investigating file relating to one issue of illegal dumping within the Department of the Environment has "gone missing".

Their complaint said: "Incredibly the investigation file disappeared within Jan O'Sullivan's own department. Emily O'Reilly, the Ombudsman, searching for the missing file within the department as a result of a freedom of information request, states in her report: 'No credible explanation as to the disappearance of this investigation file within the department has been given.'"

In a previously unreported Dail exchange on the last day before the recess, Fianna Fail's Niall Collins criticised the refusal of Mr Hogan and Ms O'Sullivan to meet the councillors.

"Elected public representatives from Wicklow County Council who sought a meeting with the minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, were told by him that they would have to deal with the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. It is not good enough that elected members of Wicklow County Council are being denied access to the persons in Government with special responsibility for planning matters throughout the State."

Mr Collins added: "There are several issues under contention in Wicklow, one of which reached a settlement in the High Court that will potentially expose the State for up to €50m. I understand several investigation files have gone missing, including one referred to as the Ballybeg file."

In response, a spokesman for the department said: "These councillors have been complaining about these issues for a number of years and the position has been explained to them on a number of occasions."

In a letter from Ms O'Sullivan to the councillors sent several months back, she indicated an unwillingness to meet them unless they substantiated their complaints in writing.

"You have since raised a number of issues with me and I have asked that if you have issues which you wish to see reviewed and which come within my ministerial remit, you should first put these matters in writing and substantiate them," she said.

Mr Hogan previously commissioned Seamus Wolfe Senior Counsel to conduct an independent review into some of the allegations raised by the councillors, but the councillors have dismissed the report as insufficient.

Sunday Independent

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