Expense claims by Environment Minister’s drivers

This is another meta FOI. This one details claims made by the ministerial drivers of Alan Kelly, Phil Hogan, Paudie Coffey and Jan O’Sullivan. Strangely, redactions were applied to the names of the drivers – the names are a matter of public record.

Who ran up a €1,600 bill ringing a single mobile number in Pakistan from the Oireachtas?

This story is by Ken Foxe and based on a recent story in the Mail on Sunday: Documents obtained under FOI are below.

A politican is suspected to have run up a bill of more than €1,600 calling a single mobile phone number in Pakistan, an unpublished Oireachtas memo has claimed.

Officials in Leinster House’s telecoms unit estimated that calls to a ‘very small number’ of foreign numbers were costing the taxpayer at least €14,000 per year.

Other costs included an estimated €1,249 bill for calling a mobile in Australia, €581 to a mobile in Lithuania, €381 to a Maltese mobile, €370 to a UK mobile, €366 to a South African landline and €331 to a landline in Cyprus. The officials admitted they were powerless to establish whether the expensive calls – made in 2010 – were legitimate as they don’t track who TDs and Senators call on their taxpayer-funded phones.

But the memo stated it was ‘difficult to imagine’ how they could be genuine. ‘It is difficult to imagine what Oireachtas business would give rise to calls costing €1,621 to a single Pakistani mobile phone number, and it would be irresponsible to consider the possibility that such calls might have been an unintended/improper use of the service provided. Without availabe data it is not possible to make any judgement on the matter.’

The discoveries were made after a report was commissioned following the ‘Ring of Kerry’ controversy in which a €2,639 bill was run up dialling a premium phone line to vote for Michael Healy-Rae, who was a contestant in the Celebrities Go Wild TV show.

That led directly to a ban on calls to premium rate numbers from all Oireachtas phones and immediately eliminated any potential for abuse. These unpublished memos, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, were prepared internally but never sent forward for consideration by spending watchdogs.

The Oireachtas has confirmed they are now planning a review of telephone services to look at the risk ‘of inappropriate use, or excessively expensive use of telecoms facilities. However, tackling the problem of politician’s personal phone bills has proven difficult because of the cloak of secrecy that surrounds them.

The Oireachtas operates a screening process for calls and if civil servants, and other similar staff, run up excessive bills – the costs are immediately red-flagged. But this screening does not apply to TDs or Senators, which means inappropriate use of phone facilities can never be investigated.

There is a proviso on the above figures in that they are based on seven months of usage, with a twelve-month figure extrapolated from the January to end July cost.

Original documents:

Office of President expenditure at Waterford IT

This is a report carried out by Deloitte & Touche into €3.7 million worth of expenditure by the Office of the President of Waterford Institute of Technology. It was released by the Higher Education Authority under Freedom of Information legislation along with the response drafted by the college.

And the response drafted by the university:

Political pensions: The costs

Political pensions and lump sums for former TDs, Ministers and Senators have cost nearly €2 million every single month over the past year and a half.

An estimated €32.7 million has been spent by the Oireachtas and Department of Finance since January 2011 on pensions for former politicians. The cost includes more than €9.5 million paid in lump sums to the record number of public representatives who retired after the last election. A further €1.5 million was paid out in termination lump sums with another €3.24 million given out in ‘termination payments’.

In total, once-off payments came to €14.35 million with a further €12.68 million paid on actual ongoing pension payments. A detailed breakdown of expenditure, which was first obtained by the Irish Mail on Sunday, shows that €371,234 has been paid out by the Oireachtas every single week since January 2011.

Around €5.2 million has been paid out during the same period in Ministerial pensions with a further €515,540 paid out in ‘severance’ payments. When the Department of Finance payments are taken into account, the weekly cost to the taxpayer has been €449,757 over the past seventeen months.

Many familiar names are in receipt of sizeable state pensions including Ivor Callely, Padraig Flynn and Ray Burke.

Expenditure by the Department of Finance on pensions is contained in the following parliamentary question.

This is the FOI request and a breakdown of the figures:

John Perry's enormous mileage claims

Small Business Minister John Perry managed to claim almost €30,000 in mileage expenses in less than 11 months.

The Fine Gael TD even managed to claim for 4,417kms in a month in which only two official appointments are listed in his diary. The Minister had an engagement in Wexford and one in Tuam, which is just a short drive from his home in Ballymote, Co Sligo.

Asked how the mileage was run up in a period in which the Dail and many government offices were closed, his Department said he had taken no holidays that month. They also said much of the mileage had been run up driving between his three constituency offices in Co Sligo.

In July of last year, the Minister made a claim for 8,722kms, which works out at 281kms per day. Mr Perry’s home in Ballymote is 192kms from the Dail, with a driving time of two and a half hours. To put it in perspective, that claim was the equivalent of a round trip to Wexford every single day, including weekends.

In the month of September, the Minister made a claim for 7,588kms despite the fact that at least nine days of the month were spent abroad (in Australia, the UK & Belgium). For the remaining days, his claim works out an average of 344kms per day, the same as a round trip to Belfast every single day, including weekends and the Bank Holiday. This level of mileage would require the Minister to have spent around four hours of each day in his car.

At the most fundamental level, it is very difficult to see how a tax-free sum of €29,782.35 can possibly be required to keep a car on the road for less than a year.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation issued a lengthy statement on the matter to the Irish Mail on Sunday at the weekend:

‘While the Dail was not in session during the whole month of August, Minister Perry continued to carry out his duties and work commitments as an elected representative for his constituency of Sligo/North Leitrim and as Minister for Small Business.

‘Due to work commitments, and to enable the Minister to fulfil his constituency obligations, Minister Perry did not take any holidays during the month of August.

‘In his role as a public representative for the constituency of Sligo / North Leitrim the Minister has three working constituency offices based in Ballymote, Tubbercurry and Sligo. The Minister operates clinics for his constituents in these offices and travels between them very frequently. In his role as Minister for Small Business he has also met with members of the business community from the region at his offices in the Constituency.

‘During the months of July, August and September – just like in every other month since being appointed Minister of State – Minister Perry has covered long distances within his constituency, between his constituency and Dublin, and all around the country in order to balance his duties as Minister of State with representing and meeting his constituents.

‘Details of the Minister’s constituency engagements and his engagements as a member of a political party were not released as part of the Freedom of Information request as these records are exempted from release.

‘It would not be unusual for Minister Perry to drive to and from Dublin, as well as to undertake other trips in the same day.

‘Mileage paid to Ministers of State is strictly based on mileage driven, and odometer readings are provided to the Department at the beginning and end of every month.’

Here are the documents:

Ruairi Quinn expense claims and insufficient transparency

Following on from a series of postings about the mileage expense claims of Ruairi Quinn (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), the blogger Anthony Sheridan [Disclosure: Anthony is the uncle of Gavin, the other half of thestory.ie] made a complaint to the Standards in Public Office Commission seeking an investigation.

They returned to him last week to say that there was ‘no basis on which to pursue the matter’.

What they did say was damning in its own right however, making very clear that the rules for Ministerial mileage were ‘not sufficiently transparent’.

In the case of Mr Quinn, it simply involved stating a monthly mileage total and cashing the resultant cheque. There were no further inquiries, no petrol receipts, no odometer readings or anything of that nature sought to back up the claims. As later was discovered, the reason for the high claims stemmed largely from his travel to and from his holiday home in Roundstone, Co Galway, something the Education Minister was curiously reluctant to admit when interviewed on RTE and Newstalk.

The Standards Commission have now written to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ask that the rules on this type of claim be changed. They have suggested that detailed claims for each and every journey – as applies to every other public servant in the country – should have to be made by Ministers.

Two observations from all this. Why is it that the systems governing expense claims by politicians are always so vague? The cynic might suggest having no rules is useful because how can you break a rule that does not exist. It is hard not to be cynical.

Credit where credit is due to the Standards Commission, as they have put Minister Brendan Howlin under intense pressure to make the change and force the country’s most senior politicians to declare their mileage journey by journey, as always should have been the case.

The letter from SIPO to Mr Sheridan follows in full:

Dear Mr. Sheridan,

I refer to your complaint of 27 February 2012 under section 22 of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 and section 4 of the Standards in Public Office Act 2001 in relation to recent newspaper articles concerning claims by Mr. Ruairi Quinn TD, Minister for Education and Skills for traveling expenses in July and August 2011.

The Standards Commission has considered the complaint in light of the contents of letters and enclosures from Minister Quinn and from Mr. Sean O Foghlu, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills.

It considered the matter in light of the provisions of section 4 (1) (a) of the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, i.e. as to whether the Minister’s actions as complained of constituted a ‘specified act’ or acts.

It has decided that there is no basis on which to pursue the matter.

Having regard to a letter dated 7 February 1984 from the Secretary to the Government to Secretaries of Government Departments for the notice of Ministers which refers to payment of mileage allowances to Ministers using their own private cars in respect of “the total mileage travelled and related to the office”, the Commission noted that the rules allow for the use by officials of the Ministers’ car on official business.

Having regard to the issues which were raised in the complaint, the Standards Commission considers that the rules in place for claims by Ministers for traveling expenses incurred on official business while using their own private cars are not sufficiently transparent.

It has therefore written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to request that he amend the rules under which Ministers claim traveling expenses for using their own private cars on official business.

It suggests that detailed claims in respect of each journey undertaken in the car along with the purpose of the journey be required in line with the rules which apply to public servants generally.

Yours sincerely

Brian McKevitt

Commission  Secretariat

Ruairi Quinn and his Galway holiday home mileage claims

The mystery of Ruairi Quinn’s unusually high mileage has finally been solved, as he was claiming for trips to and from his holiday home.

Mr Quinn, when interviewed on RTE and Newstalk last month, explained that the reason the claims were so high was because officials used the car and not all official travel was marked in his diary.

The background to this story is here and here and his diary entries and expense claims can be found in previous posts on thestory.ie here and here.

Copies of expense claims submitted by his driver now show that the main reason his mileage was so high in July and August was because he was claiming for trips to and from Roundstone, Co Galway where he has a holiday home.

In total, there were 12 claims either to and from Galway, many of them listed as Roundstone.

In many of the cases, the car would travel to Galway to collect him and bring him to events.

On a couple of occasions, it appears as if Mr Quinn was simply driven to Roundstone with no official business listed for those days.

Mr Quinn also made a claim for mileage (while his driver claimed subsistence) for the Labour Party think-tank in Tullow, Co Carlow last year.

The claim form from the Department of Education specifies that all mileage must be carried out as part of official Ministerial duties.

Asked whether this type of claim was acceptable, particularly in light of Labour’s previously hard-line policy on expenses claimed by Ivor Callely and John O’Donoghue amongst others, one of Mr Quinn’s special advisers said he was working in the car during these journeys.

His spokeswoman said: “All of Minister Quinn’s claims for expenses and mileage are strictly in accordance with the arrangements outlined by the government.

The Minister is often required to interrupt his holidays to attend official functions and undertake government business.

In order to carry out his considerable workload at the Department of Education and Skills, the Minister carries confidential official papers in the car and works while on route to his destinations.  This is considered to be official travel.

The drivers of the minister are entitled to claim for subsistence when on official business, again all of which are in accordance with the guidelines.

As has been pointed out to you on several occasions, the Minister’s electronic diary does not reflect all official uses of the car.

Here are the documents:

The Ruairi Quinn Mileage Claims – Part Two

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has been asked to explain a second expenses claim, this time relating to a month in which he spent 22 days on holiday.

In August 2011, Mr Quinn signed off on a claim for 2,800 kilometres worth around E800 despite the fact his official diary shows that he was working for only nine days that month.

That works out at an average of 311 kilometres every day, the equivalent of a round-trip to Waterford on each working day, about four hours driving time.

His diary makes apparent less than 1,000 kilometres of the total that was claimed for, including two trips to Maynooth and a trip to Clifden.

Here is the detailed story I wrote about this expense claim.

Also published here are Minister Quinn’s expense claims for the period between March and the end of August 2011, and those of his colleague in the Department of Education Ciaran Cannon over a similar period.

Ruairi Quinn’s official diary for August 2011, which lists him as having been on holiday from August 6 to August 28 – apart from a single day – can also be examined.

Here are the claims:

July diary:

August diary:

Ruairi Quinn and his mileage claim

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has been asked this week to explain a mileage claim he made in July of last year.

For the month in question, Mr Quinn claimed for 5,100 kilometres (worth €1,451). Searching his official diary for the month however, shows that Mr Quinn had only a single engagement outside of Dublin, when he spoke at the MacGill summer school in Co Donegal.

On six of the days that month, he was on an official visit to Chicago while a further seven days are either specifically marked “private” or simply left blank.

Calculating all of the mileage that was apparent from the diary comes to less than 1,000 kilometres of the total, making it impossible for the public or media to identify how the other 4,100kms were incurred.

Over the course of three weeks, a number of queries were submitted to Mr Quinn’s Department, the upshot of which was that the official diary does not account for all travel.

Subsequently, in radio interviews on Newstalk and RTE this week, Mr Quinn said that some of the mileage relates to other people, including civil servants and so on, traveling on his behalf.

Here is the lengthy story that I wrote based on the documents.

The diary and expense claims for the month can be found here:

At the very least, this shows an expense system that is badly in need of reform with simply no way of retrospectively checking how the mileage was incurred.

There are few, if any, private companies (or indeed public bodies) that would simply allow readings from an odometer to count for the purposes of paying out a not insignificant amount of money. Almost all would seek a detailed list of journeys conducted, their purpose, their date and so on. And when people talk of vouched expenses, that is the type of system they mean.

Vouched expenses does not mean a TD making a claim, then holding on to a receipt, with only a 10% possibility of being audited. Nor does it mean simply entering a round figure on an expense sheet without supporting documentation.