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Revealed: €30m bill for running costs for the Mahon Tribunal

THE State has racked up a massive €30m bill meeting the day-to-day running costs for the Mahon Tribunal, an investigation by the Irish Independent reveals.

The taxpayer has spent a staggering €150,000 providing tea, water and newspapers alone for the tribunal's legal team, as well as forking out for plants and expensive crockery.

The longest-running tribunal in the history of the State has cost €97m to date -- but almost €30m of this has been spent on 'administrative' costs.

It means the tribunal has spawned a mini-industry in office supplies, IT, recruitment and even the purchase of exotic plants to decorate offices at Dublin Castle during its 13-year history.

The eye-catching expenditure revealed in a detailed breakdown of expenses includes:

* Some €80,000 on tea, coffee and water.

* Almost €70,000 on newspapers, milk and other kitchen supplies.

* Nearly €50,000 on lunches for judges and the tribunal's legal team -- many of whom were paid more than €1,700 a day.

* Business-class flights for witnesses, a bill of more than €1,000 for plants, €5,160 for a timber shed and €1,100 for a judge's bench.

* More than €200,000 in expenses for judges and their staff.

* Another €46,000 spent shredding documents.

The tribunal, which last sat in public in October 2008, has yet to produce a final report, but publication is expected shortly.

Established in 1997 to investigate alleged planning corruption in Dublin, documents seen by the Irish Independent show that the bill continues to rocket for the inquiry, which has sat for 916 days.

In its first year, administrative costs amounted to €395,000, before peaking at €2.8m in 2004.

In the last three years, the bill has been almost €4.8m -- even though no evidence has been heard in public. In the same period, tribunal lawyers have been paid almost €5.4m for their work in preparing the long-awaited final report.

The expense revelations will anger many taxpayers struggling with lower incomes, a raft of tax hikes and cuts in social welfare and public services.

The State has since moved to bring down the hefty price tag associated with carrying out wide-ranging inquiries into important matters of public interest. It has established Commissions of Investigation -- such as the Murphy investigation into clerical sex abuse -- in an attempt to save time and money.

Evidence in commissions of investigation is taken in private, reducing the adversarial nature of the public tribunal hearings and bringing the need for lawyers -- and legal costs -- down.

But Environment Minister Noel Dempsey told the Dail in 1998 that any resources the Mahon Tribunal needed would be made available, admitting the following year that the final cost could not be estimated as it would depend on when the inquiry finalised its business.

The documents show that the government essentially gave it a blank cheque to complete its investigations. The tribunal itself signed off on the various bills as it is an independent entity -- the Department of the Environment had no role in it.

A detailed breakdown of costs show the tribunal has cost a total of €97.3m so far.

Of this, almost €50m has been paid in legal fees to barristers, solicitors and paralegals working for the tribunal; almost €15m on court costs including additional legal fees and €10m awarded to parties who gave evidence.

The remaining €29,882,851 was for 'administrative costs'.

The records show that judges and their tipstaffs claimed more than €200,000 in expenses which they are entitled to, while enjoying lunches at the taxpayer's expense. The figures for judges' expenses relate to 2007 and 2008. Prior to this, they were paid directly by the Courts Service. The amount claimed by tipstaffs and drivers is from 2004 to 2008.

Staff were sent on expensive planning and legal courses costing €2,000 -- despite being employed for their expertise in these areas.

The tribunal also spent millions of euro on computer equipment, maintenance, fire alarms, office supplies and cleaning services.

The inquiry also rented rooms in the Stephen's Green club and Westbury Hotel, installed a mobile phone kit in a judge's car while barrister John Gallagher -- who earned more than €3m in fees -- was reimbursed for the €16 cost of having office keys cut.

And the final bill is expected to more than double.

The Department of the Environment says it could ultimately end up costing nearly €250m when costs were awarded to third-parties.

The figures are based on estimates from tribunal chairman Judge Alan Mahon. They are based on an April 2010 ruling from the Supreme Court, which found that even if a witness or party obstructed the work of the inquiry, they might still be entitled to their legal costs.

Previous estimates from the Comptroller and Auditor General expected the final bill to be no more than €194m.

Not until the tribunal's final report is published will Judge Mahon rule on costs.

Irish Independent