Wednesday 13 December 2017

'Slush fund' paid for top mandarin's trips abroad

Retired civil servant received €12k from controversial Siptu account

Simon Harris questioned why a retired public servant was going on study trips. Photo: Tom Burke
Simon Harris questioned why a retired public servant was going on study trips. Photo: Tom Burke

DANIEL McCONNELL Political Correspondent

THE controversial Siptu "slush fund" which is currently under investigation made payments of €12,000 to a top former senior civil servant, the Sunday Independent has learnt.

The €12,000 payments from the €4.4m Siptu fund are among post-retirement payments totalling €68,000 to Frank Ahern, an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Health, to emerge in documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

He was also present on 10 foreign trips paid for out of the taxpayer funded "slush fund" – as it was described at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is currently investigating the matter.

Mr Ahern also went on five 'study trips' paid for by the training fund, even after his retirement from the Department of Health.

The other €56,000 of this figure derived from other "consultancy work as well as giving lectures" to two third-level institutions.

According to the documents, Mr Ahern received the €12,000 payments from the so-called "slush fund" over several years.

At one time, prior to his retirement, Mr Ahern had been in authority to approve payments from the same fund he received the €12,000 payments from.

The revelations come as the Dail's Watchdog committee has stepped up its attempts to force former Siptu official Matt Merrigan to appear before it.

Mr Merrigan has repeatedly refused to come before PAC to explain his role in administering the "slush fund", which was paid for by the taxpayer. Siptu has claimed that it was unaware of the existence of the fund and that it was never entered into its accounts.

From the documents, it is evident that Mr Ahern received from the fund training grant payments following his retirement.

When he was a senior health official, he had at one stage in his own words "authority to approve" payments from the fund.

On foot of today's revelations, the PAC is to call on the Health Service Executive (HSE) to provide an explanation as to how a retired official, who had previous control of these training payments, came to receive payments from the fund.

Fine Gael PAC member Simon Harris told the Sunday Independent: "Why was any retired public servant going on study trips being funded by the taxpayer, where is the benefit to the taxpayer there? It is quite disconcerting that someone who had responsibility for administering the fund, then on his retirement benefited through consultancy fees.

"In light of the revelations uncovered today by the Sunday Independent, I think it would be for the Department of Health and the HSE to co-operate with the PAC on this matter as quickly as possible," Mr Harris added.

Mr Ahern said that he was invited along by Matt Merrigan to act as rapporteur on interesting discussions from the trips to the United States and Australia.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent this weekend, Mr Ahern said he operated on the basis that the fund was fully authorised by Siptu itself. He insisted he only learnt it had not, in fact, been authorised by the union when the C&AG audit commenced.

Mr Ahern said: "I acted honestly at all times. I would accept the C&AG's contention that those who were in authority should not be beneficiaries. That is a lesson learnt."

Mr Ahern detailed the payments in a letter to the then Secretary General, Michael Scanlan, who is now the chairman of Tallaght Hospital.

In the letter, Mr Ahern details how he received the payments in respect to "consultancy services and the organisation of conferences and workshops" in relation to the HSE Skill Programme.

These payments amounted to €11,900 and were paid following his retirement between 2006 and 2008.

Mr Ahern detailed payments totalling €68,000 he received between 2006 and 2009, after his retirement, for work on the Skill Programme newsletter, other consultancy work as well as giving lectures on change management and comparative healthcare.

The system of payments to facilitate training for senior managers began in the late 1990s as part of a move to improve industrial peace as part of the wider social partnership ethos.

Mr Ahern said that the grants paid for the training of front line supervisors were, prior to his retirement, "within his authority to approve" and were relevant to better people management and higher quality performance.

"I would state I never sought a consultancy from any person or organisation. I was approached to carry out this consultancy work as I had the skills and knowledge necessary to complete the work," Mr Ahern said.

The Sunday Independent previously revealed that out of the €4.4m fund, €1.1m was spent on travel, hospitality and marketing.

This was found by the C&AG to be "outside the scope of the fund's original objective". The total cost of all trips across the world was €598,000 and invited officials "simply had to show up at the airport and collect their tickets", the PAC heard.

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.

According to HSE documents, on 10 foreign study trips, five serving Department of Health officials as well as Mr Ahern, were in the party.

Last Thursday, PAC members decided to seek independent legal advice after another Dail committee, the Committee on Procedure and Privilege (CPP) said it needed more information before it could decide to grant powers of compellability.

PAC members Shane Ross and Mary Lou McDonald said the CPP demand was a bid to "nobble" the committee in trying to do its work.

Sunday Independent

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