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Sunday 20 May 2018

State spending watchdog was kept in dark about Templemore for a decade

Scandal tells a multitude about Garda culture, writes Shane Phelan

The findings were part of a wider audit which found the college operated 48 different bank accounts, leading to a “non-transparent system of accounting”. Many bank accounts were used for purposes other than they were intended
The findings were part of a wider audit which found the college operated 48 different bank accounts, leading to a “non-transparent system of accounting”. Many bank accounts were used for purposes other than they were intended

The State’s spending watchdog should have been told a decade ago of financial irregularities at the Garda College. Had the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) been informed, it is likely the scandal would have been dealt with long ago.

Instead the historic  failings and the apparent circling of the wagons to keep them out of the public domain were exposed at a time when a teetering Garda Commissioner could ill afford another scandal.

The controversy tells a multitude about all that is wrong with the culture of the force and has revealed the tensions that exist between senior civilian staff and their uniformed colleagues.

One reason it has taken so long to emerge is that despite repeated suggestions that the Garda’s internal audit unit and consequently the C&AG be informed or involved, this did not happen until relatively recently.

The head of internal audit for An Garda Síochána, Niall Kelly, told TDs last week he absolutely concurred with the view that one reason why an organisation that finds potential wrongdoings and sloppy practices would not pass the information to its auditors or the C&AG is that it does not want a spotlight shone on the issues.

We now know, as a result of an internal Garda audit report completed in February and more recent testimony at the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC), that there were several occasions when the irregularities should have been referred to the internal audit unit and the C&AG.

Getting to the bottom of who exactly stopped this from happening has been difficult. Inexplicable gaps in official documentation mean the truth remains illusive.

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Concerns were first expressed about finances in the college in an unfinished Garda internal audit report in 2006, a year before that unit was restructured and Mr Kelly came on board.

A separate report by the Garda finance directorate in April 2008 uncovered discrepancies in compliance with financial procedures.

C&AG Seamus McCarthy said he would have expected to have been made aware of the problems in 2006 or “at the latest” in 2008. Instead it would be May 31, 2016, before his office was told.

Just why the 2006 internal audit report was not completed is not clear, but Mr Kelly offered the view that the unit was “staffed entirely by uniformed gardaí who did not have the requisite professional experience”.

The 2008 finance directorate report was not forwarded to the internal audit unit and was only “discovered” as part of the recent audit report.

According to Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan the 2008 report was forwarded to then commissioner Fachtna Murphy, who accepted recommendations made on foot of it. Mr Murphy ordered that the report be forwarded to the internal audit unit.

Ms O’Sullivan told the PAC last week it was “not evident” from Garda records why this did not happen. The person whose responsibility this would have been was not named and is no longer with the force.

Then chief administrative officer John Leamy advised Mr Murphy that the Garda audit committee, an independent body appointed by the Justice Minister, should be informed of the details of the report.

But there is no record that the committee was briefed.

Mr Leamy advised that the then director of finance be authorised to conduct a full and comprehensive financial audit of the college. But the internal audit unit was not informed of this.

Ms O’Sullivan said it was “not evident” who decided not to inform them. Mr Leamy also recommended that the C&AG be told.

Mr Kelly said he found correspondence showing Mr Murphy gave instructions that the report by given to internal audit and the C&AG.

This did not happen and of the 12 recommendations made in the 2008 report, only two were implemented by the college. In 2010 a draft internal audit unit report for Mr Murphy said it could provide no assurance in regard to financial controls at the college. The unit said it had been seeking access to a report being drafted by the finance directorate about the college but was rebuffed.

The Garda’s executive director of finance, Michael Culhane, denied it was his decision not to give the report to the audit unit and told TDs he was not aware who made the decision.

Mr Kelly subsequently deleted a key paragraph about financial controls from his report to Mr Murphy after getting assurances from the finance directorate that the issues were being tackled.

 He now says that in hindsight he should not have accepted the assurances.

In March 2011, Mr Kelly was finally given a summary of the finance directorate report. By then the college was effectively closed due to a recruitment moratorium.

It would be 2015 before the college finances issue raised its head again. The Garda’s executive director for human resources, John Barrett, began investigating and that July he met Ms O’Sullivan in Templemore and briefed her.

Mr Barrett has alleged he subsequently received “considerable push back”.

Nevertheless, Ms O’Sullivan set up a steering group to examine concerns.

But it was not until March 2016 the internal audit unit became involved and two further months before the C&AG was told. She insisted this was not done earlier because “work was ongoing to establish the facts”.

Ms O’Sullivan was also told in July 2015 by the Garda’s head of legal Ken Ruane that she may need to inform Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. However, this was not done until October 2016.

Ms O’Sullivan has denied stalling or disregarding Mr Ruane’s advice, insisting she did not feel she had sufficient information at the time.

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