New FOI Act added “significant protection” from scrutiny for expense claims by TDs and Senators

Over a year ago now, I submitted an FOI request to the Houses of the Oireachtas as part of a project I was working on in the RTÉ Investigations Unit called No Expenses Spared.

This FOI request was very specific, looking for copies of invoices and receipts submitted by the small group of TDs and Senators who had been selected for the annual random audit for the calendar year 2013.

Every year, 10% of national politicians have their expense claims audited by Mazars, a professional services and accountancy firm.

And each year, Mazars publish a report like this based on those audits with politicians often asked to pay back money that was not claimed correctly.

Ever since the new expenses regime had been introduced after former Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue resigned – the Oireachtas had stuck by a flawed notion that these records could not be sought through FOI.

It was a technical argument which at its simplest relates to how FOI legislation talks about public bodies “holding” records and in this case, the Oireachtas believed they never actually physically held these records.

Instead, their argument was that the records only ever passed from the TD or Senator to Mazars and therefore were exempt from FOI.

Based on the much wider definitions of what “holding” a document involved in other similar cases, I thought this was a bit of a nonsense and so on that basis, I sought an internal review.

This basically means that a more senior member of staff in the same organisation – Leinster House in this case – looks at the FOI request anew.

In the new decision, the Oireachtas again decided that I should not be granted access to these records.

However, this time, the rationale for the decision was quite different and the request was refused on the basis that the invoices and receipts were considered “private papers” of the individual TDs and Senators.

That seemed to me to open the door to their release. It seemed clear to me that the Oireachtas were no longer relying as strongly on the idea that they did not hold the records – when the invoices and receipts were so clearly in possession of a contractor that they had employed.

Equally, the idea that the “private papers” argument could really apply to invoices and receipts that had been issued from local newspapers, or other such businesses, seemed a stretch.

Similar material has, as we know, been routinely released under FOI in the past in Ireland, and of course in the United Kingdom.

Solicitor Fred Logue – who worked closely with Gavin Sheridan on a number of high-profile cases over NAMA and the ECB – helped me in putting together a new appeal, this time made to the Information Commissioner.

The case, at least to me, seemed open and shut.

One of the very first big decisions made by the Information Commissioner in a case involving Richard Oakley, now of the Times Ireland, had covered some very similar terrain.

In that case, then Commissioner Kevin Murphy said that he could not accept that expenses of members could come within the term “private papers of its [Oireachtas] members”.

I will let the new Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall come in here with his decision:

“Against this background, it would seem reasonable to conclude that receipts and invoices for expenses incurred by [Oireachtas] members in the course of the performance of their functions would not ordinarily be considered to be private papers of the members. However ….”

That turned into a big however.

Mr Tyndall said that under the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges, and Procedures) Act 2013 – these invoices and receipts were clearly “private papers”.

He explained the inconsistency with the decision that had been made by his predecessor Mr Murphy about political expenses by pointing out that the new FOI Act 2014 – in particular Section 42(l) – contained new provisions.

“It is quite broad in nature,” Mr Tyndall said, “and affords a more significant protection for private papers of members of the Houses than previously existed.”

Quick aside – there is only one group of people who can benefit from this new and “significant protection”.

Mr Tyndall continued to say that it could be argued that this “broad protection” was “inconsistent” with requirements of public bodies to achieve greater openness, strengthen accountability, and so on.

He concluded: “Nevertheless, while it might be expected that information relating to expenses of members of the Oireachtas should be fully transparent and subject to public scrutiny under FOI, I must have regard to the prevailing legislation at the time of my decision.”

The decision to refuse access for me – and the broader public – to even a selection of the expense claims of our elected TDs and Senators was upheld.

By the way, this is the expenses system, which we are repeatedly told is “fully vouched”.

Two questions:

Who benefits from this arrangement? About 166 TDs and 60 Senators.

More importantly though, who introduced this significant extra protection for politicians (already benefitting from an incredibly opaque and non-transparent expenses system) when the FOI Act was being drafted?

You can read the decision in full at the link below:

* I am Mr S by the way in case of confusion and would have had no issue whatsoever with my name being included.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is the “inheritance tax trap” a myth?

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has plans (according to a Sunday Independent report last week) to slash the inheritance tax bill for most families with a promise to raise thresholds. This would remove most people from that particular tax net.

Fine Gael has been coming under increasing pressure from within its own party, from home owners in Dublin, and from farmers for reform of the inheritance tax regime.

In Budget 2016, Finance Minister Michael Noonan raised the thresholds but documents obtained under FOI show that public servants did not necessarily believe the issue was quite as pressing as the Taoiseach does.

In a pre-Budget submission, Mr Noonan was told that the so-called “inheritance tax trap” really only cropped up in “quite particular circumstances” where people were forced to sell a family home to pay tax liabilities.

The Department of Finance was also told by Revenue officials that an exemption from inheritance tax for people who already lived in a property was being “much abused”.

Nonetheless, the government has obviously decided that the priority is not reforming the “much abused” system, but rather helping ensure that people pay less tax on what is described accurately in separate FOI documentation as “unearned income”.

The full submission is below:



You can read the original story in the Sunday Times here (subscription required)

The Department of Finance sent a detailed response to five questions only after publication:

1.      “If increase of bands was actually necessary considering documents suggest the “inheritance tax trap” was something of an illusion.”


This query appears to relate to paragraphs 10 and 11 of record number 47. The point being made in these paragraphs is that where a person inherits the property in which they reside and has no interest in another property, then it is likely that they will benefit from the CAT dwelling house exemption and have no CAT liability in respect of that inheritance. Where an individual does not qualify for the dwelling house exemption (for example because he or she already has a residence separate to the property being inherited) and a liability to CAT arises, there are options available for paying the tax in a manageable way. The increase in the Group A lifetime tax-free threshold from 14 October 2015 will help mitigate the scale of any tax liability which may arise in asset transfers between parents and their children, given increases in asset prices (particularly property prices) over recent years.

2.      “The Revenue suggestion that the dwelling house exemption covered most of these cases [our italics] and that it was “much abused”.”

3.      “Why Revenue’s idea that inheritance tax should apply to everything but at 50% market value was not pursued”.


It is not clear where, in the material provided in response to the FOI request, that the “suggestion” framed in italics comes from or what the reference to “most of these cases” means.

The CAT dwelling house exemption is designed to prevent hardship in the case of home-sharers where a beneficiary inherits the property in which he/she resides and has no interest in another property and would otherwise have to sell the inherited property in order to pay the inheritance tax. It is an appropriate exemption for this reason.

The exemption is, however, subject to conditions and the Revenue Commissioners have found in some instances that arrangements have been put in place by individuals to comply with the terms (if not the spirit) of the conditions in order to claim the dwelling house exemption in circumstances for which the relief was not originally envisaged. For this reason, the qualifying conditions and requirements of the exemption are subject to ongoing review and changes to the conditions are periodically examined and considered. A review of the qualifying conditions for the relief is ongoing.

4.      Revenue’s suggestion that thresholds were a concern because they could just end up being “dictated by Dublin price movements”.

5.      I was also looking for any general comment the Department might have on why they made the changes they eventually did,


The Minister has stated that he decided to increase the Group A tax –free threshold to €280,000 in recognition of the improving state of the national finances and of the concerns expressed to him by people making and receiving gifts and inheritances, particularly in a context of rising property prices. The scope and scale of the change was determined in large part by the limited fiscal space available. The Minister has also stated that he views the Budget 2016 change as the start of a process. Provided, among other factors, that our economic recovery continues, he has indicated that he will examine the scope for further improvements in the tax-free thresholds in the future.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Political Expenses, Pay and Pension Databases

With the election coming up, these databases of political pay, expenses, pensions, and allowances may all again prove of interest.

First up was the database of the €100 million paid out in salaries, expenses and allowances to TDs and Senators in the period between March 2011 and the end of July 2014:

Next came a full searchable database of the €65 million that was paid out in pensions, termination payments and other lump sums to our former politicians:

The last of them (and most painstaking of them all) was an analysis of the €27 million paid out to the various government ministers from the 2011 election to the end of 2014:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Alan Shatter and the cronyism row

Justice Minister Alan Shatter was quick to deny accusations that the appointment of a political donor to a €12,500-a-year post was anything to do with cronyism.

Oliver Connolly, who once gave Mr Shatter a €1,000 donation, was given the post as confidential recipient, what is effectively an outlet for garda whistleblowers.

Mr Shatter would not comment however, on whether cronyism was at play when he appointed his wife Carol as his secretarial assistant.

He also claimed in excess of €33,000 in expenses for a constituency office at his family home, an unorthodox arrangement when most politicians would set up a separate office.

The allowance for the constituency office is for rent, heat, light, rates etc, none of which would have applied for his house.

Mr Shatter had also made similar claims for a constituency office at his business premises at Ely Place, the HQ for his legal firm Gallagher Shatter. That office is not in his constituency.

The response from Fine Gael:

– Between 1997 and 2002 the Deputy did not have a Secretarial Assistant in Leinster House and his home was used as an office for constituency and political matters and for meeting constituents and local groups.  Some constituency and political work was also carried out in the law firm. The allowance claimed was in accordance with the applicable Statutory Instruments.

– Since re-election in 2007 with a new system of parliamentary supports in place and the availability to him of better office accommodation in Leinster House, the majority of constituency and political work is handled and processed from an office in the office block LH2000. Some constituency matters, political work, research and meetings with constituents are still undertaken from home.  Due to the reduction in the volume of such work at home since re-election the Deputy made no claim since re-election in 2007 for any such payment.

The documents on which this is based can be found here:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Smithfield Horse Fair

An interesting report prepared by an independent safety expert on behalf of Dublin City Council regarding safety issues at the horse fair at Smithfield.

This was finalised in May 2009, more than a year before the events of early March where a number of people ended up hospitalised following shootings and a near-riot.

A lot of people have differing views on Smithfield and the horse fair, whether it is part of Dublin history or whether it is a serious accident just waiting to happen.

The author of this report is pretty clear in his findings and says the chances of multiple fatalities occurring at the horse fair are “probable”.

Here it is:

The report

On a side note, Dublin City Council released this report outside of Freedom of Information legislation simply because I asked for it: a very welcome development and one I hope others will follow.

Dublin City Council are one of the most co-operative public bodies in Ireland when it comes to transparency, and take their responsibilities seriously in releasing data.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Decentralisation Sites

Ordinary people were not the only ones who got burned in the property crash and the government themselves were no Morgan Kelly when it came to predicting the inevitable collapse.

At the height of the boom, they paid out €168 million in taxpayer money for a number of properties around the country, many of them related to the decentralisation project.

There were also some other purchases for cultural (or perhaps vanity) projects.

A grand total of €41.8 million was paid for sites at Earlsfort Terrace and surrounds for developing the National Concert Hall.

Another €19.95 million was paid for three houses at Merrion Square for an extension to the National Gallery.

It is hard to see either of these two projects taking place any time soon.

A list of OPW transactions from 2006 to 2008

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stamped all over

BELOW IS THE LONGER version of an article I wrote for this week’s Sunday Tribune. Things have been very quiet around here of late because my scanner is misfiring. Am hoping to have one up and running again soon however, and will be back posting documents as soon as I can.

IT BEGAN on a slightly surreal note. Ceann Comhairle Seamus Kirk warned the Opposition benches that they would not be allowed to leak details of the Budget until Brian Lenihan had finished his speech. Why would they have bothered?

Almost every morsel of information had already been carefully fed to a media that willingly swallowed whole the tidbits thrown from the mahogany desks of Merrion Street and Government Buildings.

The old age pension was spared, social welfare was cut, the minimum wage reduced, Jackie Healy-Rae got his nursing home: it could hardly be said that we were not warned.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his fourteen Ministers were going to share in the suffering, and there would be a cap of €250,000 on the pay of anybody in a State body.

Try to ignore for a second the fact that the pay of TDs and Senators would remain untouched and that those already being paid incomes in excess of quarter of a million euro might well be exempt.

The camera panned around the room.

In one corner sat Bertie Ahern, keeping his head hung low, probably still muttering the word “Lehmans” to himself over and over again.

He had to be there; it is no longer possible to claim the “turning up” allowance in absence, now that parliamentarians are faced with the indignity of a fob-in system.

Outside, sat his Ministerial car, his garda driver left waiting for him, perhaps to whisk him to a $50,000 speaking engagement, or get him home in time to write his column for the News of the World.

Near him was John O’Donoghue, nodding thoughtfully, wondering how it had come to this, perhaps dreaming of better days in Cheltenham and Longchamp.

Paul Gogarty sat as he always does, a petulant child shouting a stream of barely abuse across the floor of the Dail. Perhaps, the day his daughter came to the Dail, it was she that had been instructed to babysit him.

I thought the budget would little affect me; my salary and that of my wife, who is a public servant, had already been substantially cut.

Mr Lenihan had a surprise in store, however.

Stamp duty on all house purchases less than one million euro was to be cut to one per cent for everybody, first-time buyers included.

Throughout this Great Depression, Mr Lenihan cajoled us into carrying on as usual: telling us to keep spending, to change our car, to buy a house … that it was business as normal in Ireland Inc.

As the dust began to settle on the remnants of Ireland’s Gilded Age, myself and my wife had strongly considered emigration.

She works as a radiation therapist treating cancer patients and [unlike me] her specialised work would have been considered sufficiently useful to qualify for a visa to Canada, Australia or the United States.

We had gone on honeymoon to Canada and ended our stay in the city of Vancouver, which in the bright sunshine of a Pacific evening certainly seemed to offer better prospects than Dublin.

Instead, we opted to remain here, stay where we were born, settle down, try and start a family, contribute to the country’s inevitable recovery.

Our first decision then was to buy a home – not a house – and put down roots in a community that we might stay in forever.

I sold the small two-bedroom cottage that I had hardly been able to afford when first bought in 2002, and managed to make a small amount of money on it.

That, I suppose, was my share of the Celtic Tiger, never mind the fact that I paid out many multiples of that profit on mortgage repayments over the years.

We set about finding a perfect house, found one, had it fall through our hands when a bid had been accepted and then just started again.

Across the road, we found a similar house, unlived in, decrepit and as an estate agent might say “in need of some modernisation”.

Our bid was accepted. We paid what we felt was a fair price and then got what was the inevitable bill for stamp duty: all told, slightly over €19,000.

If we bought the house today, we would have paid a little more than €4,000.

The extra money that we spent is gone, evaporated, no doubt already put towards some worthy cause: maybe NAMA or Anglo Irish Bank.

Nobody ever minded taxes when they imagined their money being spent on a new road, teaching a child, treating somebody in hospital but now this money – like the pointless stamp duty we paid – all seems to disappear, as if into a boghole.

At this point, for some readers, the inevitable hubris will set in. Those people who love to fulminate will delight in saying it serves me right: no more than they gloried in talking about those bonded in negative equity (how strange it is that the Irish people did not invent the word schadenfreude?).

Yet, I feel no pity for myself and only a small level of regret. We make choices all of the time, some of them bad, all of them human.

Like many – probably most – Irish people, it has been a longstanding wish of mine to have a home, a place where I hope to raise a family, a place to put down roots, a house somewhere in the city that I love. And I will have that.

I consider myself exceptionally lucky, both myself and my wife still have jobs, while more than 400,000 people do not. When emigration crossed our minds, it was then only a choice – not an imperative.

Unlike many, I will never pretend to be a member of the “we” that have genuinely suffered in the Celtic Tiger’s evisceration.

I will blindly continue to pay my taxes: the income tax on my PAYE salary, the PRSI, the levies, the car tax, the tolls, the bin charges, the VAT on every single thing I purchase. When the water and property taxes arrive, I will pay them as well.

When the people of Fianna Fail (and the Green Party) come calling to my door next year, I will not even waste my time asking them about my lost stamp duty. Reformation of that tax should have happened years ago and if it had, perhaps … well, that is another story.

Instead, I will ask them why corporation tax is so absolutely untouchable. I will question why an increase of even 0.5 per cent could not be countenanced, just so that we could pretend that big businesses would share this so-called pain.

I will ask why the salaries of TDs and Senators were left untouched and why most of their expenses and allowances remain unvouched, despite the abuses.

I will ask why a new tax band could not have been introduced for income above €100,000. It might not have yielded that much in real terms but it is not like every cent would not help.

Spare the nonsense that it will send our most capable packing, that the country needs to incentivise self-starters. It was that culture of bonuses and greed, which has left our government telling us: “We are where we are.”

When they fail to answer those questions, I will ask them why the minimum wage had to be cut, when it will yield absolutely nothing to the Exchequer and may even end up costing us.

They say everybody has to share the burden, but why does it seem that all but a few symbolic high earners will not be shouldering anything extra this week.

Finally, when the loyal acolytes of Fianna Fail and the Greens come calling, I will tell them they are no longer welcome at my door.

And perhaps, I may remind them of another piece of legislation that they themselves introduced – the one allowing home-owners shoot unwelcome interlopers on their property.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Noel Dempsey and the “public interest”

Back in July, Minister Noel Dempsey headed off to Derry Airport on board the government’s €7,890 Gulfstream IV so that he could give a talk at a summer school in Donegal.

From there, he was flown to London where he had a secret meeting the following morning at the Irish Embassy.

Mr Dempsey subsequently said he should probably have looked into alternative arrangements, considering his use of the government jet for those two days cost €23,000.

What he would never be drawn on however, was what exactly what he was doing in London, simply saying it involved the possibility of creating jobs in Ireland.

When I sought details of what Mr Dempsey was doing in London under the so-called Freedom of Information Act, all references to the meeting were deleted from the records.

Access to them was refused under a variety of different grounds of the FOI Act, chiefly relating to ongoing government deliberations and the argument that it might indicate a government position.

The Department of Transport – which in my personal experience has a particularly severe approach to Freedom of Information – thus censored the documents in the “public interest”.

Not only did they delete all possiblity of finding out who Mr Dempsey met and what was discussed, they also took it upon themselves to censor details of public servants that had travelled with him.

This is highly unusual. Frequently, government Departments will contact me and ask me if it would be OK to drop names of individual civil servants from the documents they release.

Invariably, I agree with them as I do not see what purpose it serves identifying ordinary public workers who are just going about their day-to-day business.

The Department did not offer that option. In this case, I was particularly interested in finding out who had travelled as it might have given us a hint of what exactly was involved.

The documents, as they were released, are below. What we do know is that Dempsey had to clear the trip with the Department of the Taoiseach, Justice and Foreign Affairs.

He arrived at the Embassy from the Kensington Hotel, had a 90-minute meeting, was collected and headed back to Dublin on the government jet.

The Minister was accompanied by his Private Secretary Veronica Scanlan, who is the decision maker on this Freedom of Information request.

It is nice to know that Ministers can now use the government jet, run up a bill of €23,000 in the process, and then simply refuse to give an explanation of what they were doing.

This, at least in my experience, is an unprecedented situation and I can never recall a trip on board either government jet that was not fully accounted for afterwards.

Have we had a major jobs announcement since Dempsey’s visit that would tally with what he spoke about or did these jobs ever materialise? There must be a way of finding out what he was doing there?

Fortunately, there are other options, all of which will be pursued.

You’ll notice the document numbers jump; the others are all Department of Transport emails, access to which was refused:






















The story as written in the Sunday Tribune at the weekend

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Democracy: Irish style

The government jet was placed at the disposal of a government minister so he could vote in the Dail against holding three by-elections and then take a late-night flight to Brussels.

The €9,000 flight for junior minister Dara Calleary was sanctioned by the Department of the Taoiseach amid confusion over pairing arrangements for TDs, at the end of September.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny had called for the issuing of writs in three by-elections for the vacant seats in Dublin South, Waterford and Donegal South-West on Wednesday, 29 September.

The government, including Dara Calleary, voted against the proposal and any plan to actually hold these elections – and allow voters the chance to exercise their democratic right – has been put back until at least next year.

Calleary said that he had been left with no alternative but to use the government jet as he was standing in for Brian Lenihan in Brussels early on Thursday morning for a meeting.

He said commercial flights were not an option because of concerns over pairing arrangements in the Dail. He said: “We could not [fly that way] because of the situation with the pairs. You don’t know what votes are going to be called and there could have been votes again on the Thursday.”

“I don’t pick the jet,” he said. “I can’t say that I want one. It arose because of the situation regarding pairs and at one stage, I wasn’t even sure if I was paired for Thursday. There could have been a vote on anything. If I had a pair, we would have chosen a commercial flight.”

Calleary’s flight on board the government jet had already caused him a little bit of local embarrassment as it was spotted flying into Knock Airport. Read about that in the Mayo News.

After flying to Brussels following the Dail vote, it was then used to bring Calleary back to Co Mayo on 1 October. The flying time was 190 minutes and with the hourly rate for the Learjet estimated at €2,900, the cost of the flight came to €9,164.

Asked about the trip by the Western People, Calleary seemed at pains to point out that he had only used the “smaller one” of the government’s two jets.

However, what he neglected to mention was that he had also used the “bigger one” (the Gulfstream IV) the same week to fly back and forth to Brussels on Monday, 27 September. That journey, which lasted 190 minutes as well, ended up costing the taxpayer close to €25,000 and it also stopped off in Knock, Co Mayo.

Dara Calleary said it would not have been possible for him to have spent the week in Brussels and that the combined government jet bill of €34,000 was necessary. The Junior Minister had attended an EU meeting on high-level financial reform from 6pm to 10pm that Monday and had another important launch in Dublin on Tuesday, he said.

For those with an interest in these types of things, I’m posting the Ministerial Air Transport Service log book for the year so far.

It lists all flights on the €2,900-an-hour Learjet and the €7,890 Gulfstream and also details the now infrequent flights that take place on Air Corps choppers.

Document here

If anybody spots any other curious flights, feel free to let me know. And feel free to buy my new book Snouts in the Trough, which is in shops and available online here

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Micheal Martin’s €3,800 hotel bill and Minister Hanafin’s mother

One of the Ministers who largely avoided criticism of his overseas expenditure at the height of the expenses controversy was Micheal Martin.

His position at the Department of Foreign Affairs made it very difficult to quibble with the very substantial travel bills that were run up by him on our behalf.

It is not quite so easy to explain away the profligacy that surrounded his time at the Department of Health however.

More documents obtained for my book Snouts in the Trough show that Micheal Martin may well hold the record for the most expensive hotel room ever booked on behalf of an Irish Minister.

That would be the more than €3,800 spent on a room for two nights at the Hotel des Bergues in Geneva.

According to the bill itself, the cost in euro was more than €4,000 but by the time the Department of Health actually paid it, a couple of hundred euro had been knocked off the price, a major relief to the grateful Irish taxpayer.

There were other substantial costs, of course: a particularly large limousine bill whilst staying in the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins in San Francisco and another room at the Irish government’s favourite Parisien hotel: the Raphael.

The astronomical bill at the Hotel des Bergues here

Room bill in San Francisco here

And a few brunches at the Top of the Mark here

The limo bill on the same trip here

A stay at the Hotel Raphael here

A sample page of what the Dept of Health were spending on Ministerial travel each month here

Another Minister who got away pretty lightly last year was Mary Hanafin.

Indeed, in some quarters she was painted as something of a hero in the controversy over expenses with one article calling her frugal and another praising her for staying with a relative while in New York.

In another radio interview, Minister Hanafin was at pains to point out that she did not think she had ever stayed in a €1,000 per night hotel.

Hear it on YouTube, thanks to Gavin Sheridan at

I suppose she was correct in that one room she stayed in at the Four Seasons in Boston was paid for in dollars – all $1,292 of them each night – and not euros.

Another unusual arrangement was in place whereby Ms Hanafin, whose husband died in 2003, was accompanied by her mother Mona on official trips abroad.

Flights for Mona Hanafin ended up being more than €20,000, according to a breakdown of costs for her daughter during the period 2005 to 2007.

You can ignore any scribbles on the documents, they are mine:

Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4

Page 5

Page 6

Page 7

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments