Top officials accused of using €2.3m 'slush fund' for travel
SENIOR officials from the HSE, the Department of Health and other government organisations were accused yesterday of using a €2.3m "slush fund" to travel with unions on dozens of foreign trips.
Three Department of Health officials even brought their wives along with them -- although the department said this was paid for personally by the officials themselves.
The money intended for staff training was instead used to pay for the trips to the US, Canada, Australia, Brussels and Hong Kong. It came from a €2.3m bank account controlled by two officials of the trade union SIPTU and it was funded mainly by the HSE's Skills programme.
The Department of Health admitted that many of the 31 trips between 2004 and 2009 had "little or nothing" to do with the Skills programme, -- which was designed to provide training for HSE support staff as porters, home helps and laundry workers.
At the Dail Public Accounts committee yesterday, Fine Gael TD Jim O'Keeffe said that a number of the foreign trips appeared to have been organised around the St Patrick's Day festival.
"Here was a slush fund that was being used for the expenditure of public monies for improper purposes," he said.
The committee heard yesterday that those on the 31 foreign trips included a senior Department of Finance official Tom Dowling (now retired), the Health Service Executive's former director of human resources, Martin McDonald, and Dublin City Council official Frank Kelly.
There were also several trade union officials, including SIPTU's Matt Merrigan and Jack Kelly and former IMPACT secretary general Peter McLoone.
There are three ongoing investigations as a result of the audit into the Skills programme -- one by the gardai, another by the HSE and yet another by SIPTU. However, it is not yet known if those who travelled on the foreign trips will have to pay back the cost.
Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen highlighted the foreign trip to British Colombia in Canada in 2003 to inspect health service restructuring there.
"This is a skills programme for home-helps. Why the hell was this programme used to look at restructuring in British Colombia?" he asked.
HSE audit official Geraldine Smith said it was fair to say that the Skills programme had acted as an independent republic without any questions being asked.
Although no details are available about the total cost of the trips, the Department of Health said its officials reported travelling on economy class flights and staying in standard hotels. One of the few specific references is to the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, where a courier delivered an item to an unknown person on a trip to New York in March 2006.
The trips were funded from a €2.3m "SIPTU" account based in the Bank of Ireland branch in O'Connell Street. Its two signatories were SIPTU officials Matt Merrigan and Jack Kelly, but the SIPTU trade union has said it was not an official account.
SIPTU is carrying out its own internal investigation but has set aside €348,000 as a possible repayment as an indication of good faith.
The committee heard yesterday that €250,000 from the "SIPTU" bank account was given to three trade unions, but no further details were available.
The HSE admitted yesterday that it did not know what the trips were for and that there had been serious breaches of its procurement and reporting procedures.
They were described in the incomplete documentation as "SIPTU study visit" and "social partnership visit". The Skills programme, which has trained 7,000 workers, is continuing within the wider HSE but the steering committee has been shut down and all funding to the "SIPTU" account has been suspended.
Newly appointed HSE chief executive Cathal Magee said the HSE needed a new IT system so that it could accurately track its finances and prevent situations like this happening again.
Documents published yesterday by the Public Accounts committee show there was a row between the Department of Health and the HSE over who was to blame for the Skills project controversy.