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Siptu slush fund also used for wives' travel

TOP officials who took their spouses along on foreign trips funded by the taxpayer only paid back the money after the scandal blew up last year, according to documents given to the Dail Public Accounts Committee.

Matt Merrigan and Jack Kelly, the top Siptu officials who controlled the €5m Siptu slush fund used to finance the foreign trips, repaid an undisclosed sum in June last year.

They were among 36 people who repaid the cost of foreign travel and other expenses -- the "majority" of whom were "assumed" to be refunding the "cost of travel" for bringing their spouses or partners along on all-expenses-paid foreign trips, according to a Siptu report.

Siptu has refused to name these people to Health Service Executive auditors, or disclose how much they individually repaid. However, the union has disclosed that the scale of refunds to the disputed bank account soared to €19,167 when the scandal first broke in 2009, while €82,880 was paid back last year.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is investigating the €5m slush fund, is to demand the information from the trade union.

At least 30 health officials, senior civil servants, union representatives and other health managers were identified as going on 40 foreign trips paid for from the private Siptu slush fund controlled by Mr Merrigan and Mr Kelly. Some of them also travelled on another 16 trips paid for by the Health Service Partnership Forum, which Mr Merrigan co-chaired.

They include a former Department of Health official, Alan Smith, who went on 22 trips but who has declined to cooperate with the inquiries on grounds of ill health.

Fine Gael TD Simon Harris, who has been outspoken on the controversy, tweeted that "more than €100,000 in restaurant bills, etc. . . puts the 'social' in social partnership".

The belated rush by unnamed officials to repay the money was raised by PAC chairman John McGuinness last week.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent this weekend, he said: "If questions hadn't been asked, it was possible that many of the senior officials who went on the trips would have left the State to pick up the tab for bringing their spouses along with them."

The PAC was told last week that €5m in State funds was paid into an unauthorised Siptu bank account since 1998. The health auditors could not account for how €1.1m of it was spent, while a further two payments €190,000 from the Department of Health couldn't be traced at all. Mr Merrigan and Jack Kelly controlled the account into which the state funds were paid.

The funds were intended to train and upskill low-paid workers, but much of it was spent on the 40 foreign-study trips, in locations as far-flung as America, Canada and Australia. There are few records and the various inquiries have been unable to even establish with certainty how many trips there were or who travelled.

Siptu was last week accused of withholding information from investigators. John McGuinness is to compel the union to provide evidence to the committee and has asked Mr Merrigan, Mr Kelly and Alan Smith to appear voluntarily.

Jack Kelly, one of the signatories on the account, used €6,000 to finance a relative's further education. Mr Kelly's unidentified relative received €3,000 in 2008 and a further €3,000 in 2009 to pursue a college education. His relative was a member of Siptu and an HSE employee. Although the fund was routinely used to provide educational grants to Siptu members, they were typically €1,500 each.

The PAC highlighted the €302,000 racked up on credit cards drawn on the Siptu account. About €108,000 of that was spent in restaurants. They also criticised the attitude of Siptu's own internal report on the affair, which said there was no "obligation" to account for Mr Merrigan's use of credit cards. Those credit card statements are now being sought by PAC.

Concerns were also raised about payments from the fund to Alan Smith, the former Department of Health official and a frequent traveller who headed the Skills project. He received €13,530 over a number of years, which Mr Merrigan explained was "payment" for attending meetings.

As a joint chair of the Health Service National Partnership Forum, Mr Merrigan proposed giving himself and six other members of the forum BlackBerry mobile phones in 2004, which were paid for by the taxpayer. The cost came to €1,393 plus VAT. The auditor found no evidence that the phones were returned by members after they left.

A HSE audit of the health partnership forum -- also disclosed to the PAC last week -- revealed one staff member claimed expenses of €72,166 in three years and another €67,506.

SIPTU, in its report, blames the Department of Health and the HSE for failing to provide greater clarity surrounding the use of the funds.

Sunday Independent