Sunday 8 December 2019

'Slush fund' union officials claim PAC members 'biased' against them

Former SIPTU official Matt Merrigan
Former SIPTU official Matt Merrigan

Shane Phelan, Public Affairs Editor

TWO former union figures due to be quizzed about a multi-million euro "slush fund" by the Dail's spending watchdog have claimed certain TDs are biased against them.

Ex-SIPTU official Matt Merrigan and a former member of the union's national executive, Jack Kelly, made the allegation in a letter to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Writing on behalf of both men, Mr Merrigan claimed members of the committee had demonstrated they were "not free from subjective bias" and had already prejudged the matter.

The duo, who set up the training fund at the centre of the committee's investigation, have been seeking to have orders compelling them to give evidence on November 27 set aside.

They risk being held in contempt of court if they refuse to appear.

Both men and former HSE employee Alan Smith face questions about how money from the State-funded account was used to pay for foreign trips for union members, civil servants, health officials and their spouses.

In the letter, Mr Merrigan outlined a number of reasons why he believed the committee should not hear evidence from himself and Mr Kelly.

He said any questioning could prejudice a garda investigation into administration of the fund.

Mr Merrigan also said the garda probe could be prejudiced if he is forced to hand over a report by Grant Thornton on the issue.

He claimed the report, which he commissioned "for the advice of my legal advisors", was a privileged document that would not be admissible in any court.

Mr Merrigan also claimed it was "not within the competence of the committee" under Dail standing orders to investigate the fund as it was not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The PAC generally only examine bodies which are audited by the C&AG.

However, it has examined a number of bodies not audited by the C&AG in the past year and was given powers to compel witnesses in relation to the operation of the training fund earlier this year by the powerful Dail Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

Should the witnesses fail to appear, the PAC can ask a court to hold them in contempt.

The PAC heard legal advice on the contents of Mr Merrigan's letter this morning.

The fund, known as the health and local authority account, was set up in 1998 and received some €4.4m from the Department of Health, the HSE, a health service partnership forum, a local authority partnership body and a hospital.

It was supposed to be used to upskill and assist lower-grade workers in the health services, mainly through the HSE skills training programme.

However, some of the funding was used to pay for trips to over 70 foreign destinations, including the US, Australia and Hong Kong.

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