Agriculture minister Simon Coveney signed off on the appointments of two failed Fine Gael general election candidates to the board of Bord Bia last week, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
The state board positions were offered to Raymond O'Rourke and Brody Sweeney, who both unsuccessfully ran for Fine Gael in separate elections, after an application process was carried out by the Public Appointment Service.
Bord Bia board members are entitled to a €11,970 annual membership fee and expenses incurred attending meetings.
The minister this weekend insisted the positions were given to the most suitable candidates.
Mr O'Rouke, who describes himself as a "food and consumer lawyer", is also a member of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland where he receives a €6,855 annual fee.
Mr O'Rourke, who is currently a card-carrying member of Fine Gael, contested the 2002 general election in Wicklow, but failed to get elected. He is also chairman of the Consumers Association of Ireland, which is a non-governmental organisation. He receives no fee for this role.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr O'Rourke insisted his appointment was "squeaky clean" and he did not use his Fine Gael membership to gain advantage.
"I'm a Fine Gael member but I don't know the minister. I only met him once in my life so there's no influence there," he said.
Mr O'Rourke said if he accepts the board membership fee, he will give it to the Consumers Association of Ireland.
Mr Sweeney, who is the founder of the O'Briens sandwich bar chain, was reappointed to the board after a three-year stint as a member.
He ran for Fine Gael in Dublin North West in the 2007 general election.
When he was appointed to Bord Bia in 2011, he waived the majority of his fees for the first two years of his tenure.
He accepted a €11,970 fee in 2013, according to the board's most recent annual accounts.
Last week, Mr Sweeney revealed he received an email from the Public Appointments Service telling him he was unsuccessful in his application, but was subsequently called and told this was a mistake.
He did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Pepsi global marketing director Rhona Holland was also reappointed to the board.
New board members include Rachel Doyle, who runs the Co Carlow Arboretum garden centre; Tony Keohane, chairman of Tesco Ireland; Tom Moran, former agriculture department secretary general; and Patrick Whelan from Whelan's Butchers.
Announcing the appointments last week, Mr Coveney said: "An Bord Bia is a valuable conduit to global markets for the Irish food sector."
He added: "Its excellence and professionalism have helped to secure agri-food exports worth €10.43bn in 2014. That success is underpinned by high-calibre board members who, through their expertise and knowledge of the food, drinks and horticulture industry, enable Bord Bia to constantly extend its capacity."
Asked yesterday if the minister was concerned about the impression the appointment of two former Fine Gael candidates might give the public, a spokesperson said: "All appointments are made through the Public Appointments Service and all appointments are suitably qualified for the board."
The Government introduced strict new protocols for state board appointments after the embarrassing fallout from the failed attempt to get Fine Gael councillor John McNulty elected to the Seanad.
Mr McNulty was appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art to bolster his credentials ahead of the Seanad vote.
After the cronyism controversy, the Public Appointment Service was given responsibility for shortlisting all candidates, which are then chosen by the minister.