Saturday 20 July 2019

Greg Craig: public servant allowed spend up to €76,000 on credit card

IN 1991, Greg Craig followed the path of his political mentor, the late Brian Lenihan, and stood for Fianna Fail in the local elections.

He was after a council seat for Ballyfermot, in west Dublin, where Mr Lenihan, the father of the current finance minister, had staunch support.

Mr Craig may have been a new kid on the block, but his brochure was more eye-catching than any of his rivals. For one thing, it was in colour: his rivals' were mostly in black and white. It was also ambitious: the centre piece was a fancy sketch of a bridge over the main street of the village to facilitate pedestrians trying to cross the busy thoroughfare.

It was the most memorable thing about his campaign, according to one veteran of it. "There were all sorts of reasons why it wasn't practical. It looked good though," he said.

Mr Craig wasn't elected but the glossy colour election brochure demonstrated that he certainly knew how to pitch an idea. It was a talent that Mr Craig deployed well years later, when his career in Fas, the State employment and training agency, took off.

As director of corporate affairs, he had a budget of close to €50m over four years to spend on advertising, promotions and events. He helped launch the Science Challenge. The Fas Jobs Fair in New York made the front page of the New York Times in 2006; he ran similar campaigns in Eastern Europe. No less a man than Bertie Ahern has credited him with being the brains behind the Opportunities jobs fair held in Ireland every year.

In return, he had a €90,000 salary and the use of a Fas credit card with a staggering €76,000 credit limit to spend on entertainment, travel and expenses. He spent massive budgets with aplomb -- an outside agency was contracted to launch a new job website, although Fas already had one.

Fas later had it shut down, but had to continue to pay the company for the duration of its 36-month verbal contract. The whole fiasco cost Fas at least €1m.

It wasn't all plain sailing: he survived an internal audit, which resulted in him being disciplined for questionable dealings with agencies looking for Fas business and providing contracts without going to tender. There was an alleged "conflict of interest", in which someone who was a friend of Mr Craig's also seemed to be consistently successful when applying for work from corporate affairs, it later emerged.

The fee another company charged Fas for consultancy work for the firm was twice what it had been the previous year, with no adequate explanation.

Even when the internal audit was mid-way through, Mr Craig was given a €10,000 bonus for "exceptional" performance in 2005. After it was finished, he was disciplined in 2007, only to be short listed for promotion to assistant director general earlier this year. One source who knows Mr Craig claimed he would never have put himself forward for promotion unless he thought he had the support of his bosses.

He didn't get the job, but by all appearances, it seemed that Mr Craig had come out the other end of a difficult period and could move on.

That changed when the Comptroller and Auditor General got wind of Fas's internal audit. He published a report in May highlighting breaches in the procurement process in Mr Craig's division, which State companies are obliged by law to follow.

The Dail's Public Accounts Committee started probing and Mr Craig took sick leave.

But only when Senator Shane Ross, the Sunday Independent's business editor, delved into 11 boxes of receipts and invoices he accessed under the Freedom of Information Act, did the full scale of profligacy at Fas emerge. And the excess wasn't limited to Mr Craig's division.

Fas spent almost €643,000 on business-class travel to the US for key executives and their guests in just four years.

Gerry Pyke, a now retired assistant director general and his wife, went on a €12,000 round-the-world trip which included stopovers in Tokyo, Honolulu and San Francisco. A bill for dinner in Dublin came to €6,962, including a tip of €900 and wines worth €1,724. A round of golf in Florida for Rody Molloy, director general of Fas, came to $900. On Greg Craig's credit card were dinners in the Unicorn and Orchid Schechuan in Dublin, both trendy restaurants near Fas's Dublin 4 headquarters; pay-per-view movies in hotel rooms in Florida and Houston; a $994.14 dinner bill from St Augustine, Florida; and another bill for the same evening from the Cobalt lounge for $175.20.

In one year more than €5.7m was spent on travel and subsistence -- enough to fund half the €10m cost of rolling out the government's abandoned vaccine programme to help prevent schoolgirls from later developing and dying from cervical cancer.

Public consternation went over the heads of Fas executives. Director General Mr Molloy was so annoyed by the story that he agreed to go on Pat Kenny's radio show. "I am entitled to travel first-class," he thundered indignantly.

By 11pm on Tuesday, he had resigned, negotiating his exit as Taoiseach Brian Cowen was still publicly defending him. Mr Craig was suspended.

Mr Molloy quit two days before he was to appear before the Dail's Public Accounts Committee, prompting Bernard Allen, its chairman, to deride those people who think they can just ride away into the sunset and leave an investigation into the expenditure of taxpayers' money handicapped.

Mr Craig may have been in the eye of the storm.

But it was the extravagance of a handful of senior executives who believed themselves entitled to travel first-class, to bring their spouses, government ministers, supporters and anyone else they saw fit to invite along, that did for Fas.

Mr Molloy was the last person one would associate with extravagance, according to one friend. He neither drinks nor smokes and, despite his €203,000-a-year salary, he lives in an unassuming bungalow on the outskirts of Maynooth, Co Kildare, where he is heavily involved in the local GAA club and various sports activities.

A career civil servant from Mr Cowen's home county of Offaly, he moved from assistant secretary general in department to director general of Fas. Mary Harney, as enterprise minister, appointed him in 2000, the same year Brian Geoghegan, the businessman she would later marry, became chairman.

"He pulled that place around. He made a lot of enemies by changing the place around," said one source.

"As the construction boom took off, Fas began training apprentices at a rate never seen before . . . he drove that with a sense of purpose. It was turned around from a lethargic, organisation to one that was flexible and vibrant."

Fas, like other State agencies, grew fat on the boom.

It had a €1bn budget, 2,200 employees, 20 directors, offices around the country --all in a nation of full-employment.

Its role had changed from finding jobs for the unemployed, to finding new workers and re-training existing ones to meet the demands of the booming economy. From 2003 to 2007, Fas spent in excess of €30m on advertising schemes such as Opportunities Exhibitions, annual jobs fair in Ireland and abroad.

What really got expenses flowing was the Fas Science Challenge, a project so innovative and appealing that little expense was spared to promote it. The idea was to put Ireland at the heart of the US space programme by sponsoring selected students on internships in the American space and science industry. The result would up Ireland's skills base, with the ultimate goal of putting the first Irish astronaut in space.

The idea was credited to Tony Gannon, a former Irish civil servant who is now a director at the Kennedy Space Centre. Mr Craig got involved in promoting it.

He brought in Paddy Duffy, a former adviser to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and shrewd public relations man, to help sell the idea.

The plan was a hit. It was deemed "good for Ireland" and attracted a slew of Fas executives keen to promote it. The first half a dozen graduates were dispatched in 2003. Over the following years, the Science Challenge grew legs as executives, government ministers and others who were thought useful to the project were invited along.

"It was important to get political support for this, so it was crucial to have the ministers, to show the Americans that we were serious," said one source close to the programme.

In all, five ministers were flown to the US with Fas officials to schmooze with America's top space scientists, spending almost €643,000 on flights. US space scientists were invited to Ireland for promotional tours.

A limousine service was laid on during a visit of the American astronaut Eileen Collins in 2006, at a cost of €13,000. Meanwhile, a hotel room in the Shelbourne cost €28,000 over two-and-a-half weeks, and included two 'banquets' on one day, costing €8,000 and €9,000.

Ms Harney made her now infamous trip in July 2004 to witness the signing of a "memorandum of understanding" between the Kennedy Space Centre and Fas.

Her husband, and Fas chairman, Brian Geoghegan, was also on the trip. Mr Molloy brought his wife, Noirin. They travelled in the government jet -- at a cost of about €70,000 to the taxpayer. Fas also booked flights at a cost of €38,000, in case the jet should be called away on government business. Fas only checked that it had got its money back on the tickets when the question of a refund came up at the Public Accounts Committee last week.

That trip will mostly be remembered for the $410 bill for wash and blow dries administered to Ms Harney and another Fas guest in their hotel rooms.

Other ministers who travelled courtesy of Fas were Tony Killeen, Micheal Martin, Michael Ahern and Mary Hanafin. The latter also received a €500 gift of a glass barometer -- paid for by Fas.

It cost another €419 to ship it home.

Paddy Duffy was flown out twice; once to Atlanta, in 2004 -- at a cost of €4,562 -- and to Florida, in 2006.

Peter McLoone, a long-standing trade unionist and general secretary of Impact, was invited along after replacing Mr Geoghegan as chairman of Fas in 2006. He flew to Orlando last year on a business-class flight costing €7,300.

Niall O'Dowd, the New York-based publisher of the Irish Voice, was invited to join another Fas delegation in Houston, Texas. He couldn't recall for sure if his flight from New York was paid for by Fas. He said he certainly wasn't travelling in business-class. Nor did he witness lavish spending.

"Frankly, it was a very modest trip. We had dinner at a restaurant near Nasa, not a fancy place, and another dinner at an Irish pub."

The board of Fas was at a loss to explain the spending of its senior executives when it appeared before Public Accounts Committee on Thursday.

Niall Saul, a human resource director and board member, said all the activities occurred "beneath the radar" of the directors.

Christy Coonan, an assistant director general of Fas, couldn't say, for legal reasons, what sort of disciplinary measures were taken against Mr Craig. Rather sheepishly, he confirmed that he was on the panel of interviewers who subsequently short-listed Mr Craig for a promotion.

As for his extraordinary expenses, they were signed off by Gerry Pyke, who has since retired. Fas was also at a loss to explain the departure of senior executives from company travel policy: economy at all times, except for flights of more than six hours, when executive class was allowed. Fas has now banned executives from travelling first class, and Fas credit card limits have been cut from €76,000 to €5,000.

Late on Friday night, the board of directors emerged from its second emergency meeting in a week battered and promising to do better.

That will not abate calls for their collective resignation. The saga has proved a debacle for Fas and damaging to the government, in a week when it launched a programme of public sector reform.

Ministers are furious. Ms Harney did not relish having to defend herself against claims she used taxpayer money for personal grooming, while Fine Gael called for her head -- the lavish spending occurred mostly on her watch as enterprise minister.

More than anything else, it has highlighted the apparent abandon of prudent, public service ethos in the people entrusted to run State bodies. And the government was a willing accomplice.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss