Corporate enforcer forced to wait years for key appointments of forensic accountants and computer experts

This is a two part-blog. First half is a story about the chaotic saga of getting forensic accountants appointed to Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement. Second half is about a similarly chaotic process of trying to fill a vacancy for an IT expert who could examine electronic evidence in the office.

Uploaded below are 600+ pages of documents that chronicle six years of communications between the ODCE and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation about staffing levels.

The final three years surrounding appointments of specialist staff make for depressing reading.

Part 1:

HIRING six senior accountants for the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement took more than two years amid chaos over getting the jobs approved and advertised.

At one stage, ODCE boss Ian Drennan said the entire process had been “nothing short of a disgrace” and that he was “mortified” about the prospect of a job advertisement filled with errors appearing in the national press.

The saga over getting the posts filled caused major discord within the Office and also the Department of Jobs and Enterprise, records released under FOI have revealed.

The ODCE first came looking for the posts in April 2013 after Ian Drennan – who had recently been appointed the Director of Corporate Enforcement – carried out a staffing review at the office.

There was public disquiet at the time because the ODCE only had a single accountant available while dealing with major investigations.

A Departmental submission said: “The situation arising where one of the main investigating agencies of those billion euro events has only one accountant’s experience to call upon is an unacceptable situation.”

By February of 2014, sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure [DPER] was still not forthcoming seven months after the ODCE had first come looking for extra staff.

An email between civil servants said: “I consider that the delay by DPER in responding to requests for sanction is not acceptable.

“Enforcement bodies such as the ODCE … should not be starved of key skills which they have identified are necessary to enable them to fulfil their statutory mandates.”

The email suggested that the matter now needed to be escalated and that then Minister Richard Bruton would contact his ministerial colleague Brendan Howlin directly.

By March, still nothing had been done with one email directly linking the delays in getting sanction to the banking crisis.

It said: “It is difficult not to see the delays in sanctioning recruitment (due to scarce public money) as being the result of the State having to aid private institutions that got into difficulty due to poor corporate governance.”

In May, with sanction for the jobs still not approved – the ODCE were separately contacted about cutting their costs by more than 6%.

An email by the Office’s now Head of Insolvency Conor O’Mahony said the latest cut proposed could have a “material risk” on whether they could properly investigate and prosecute significant cases.

By June, a letter from Minister Bruton was finally sent to the Department of Public Expenditure pleading the case for the extra accountants.

Sanction was not granted until October however, at which point the Department of Jobs began the process of getting the job hunt started.

One internal email explained how they were hopeful of getting the jobs filled early in 2015 – but that proved hopelessly optimistic.

By May, nothing had happened and work on the advertisement had been “crowded out” by a variety of issues in the personnel department “too many to number”.

At a meeting in July between the Department and the ODCE, the Office again pleaded for the process to be speeded up and asked that the jobs be advertised the following month.

By September, still nothing had happened and Ian Drennan wrote directly to the Department saying he was “anxious to progress this matter”.

A commitment was then made that the jobs would be advertised early in November but once again, crossed wires saw it delayed.

In late November, the text of the advertisement was circulated but was, according to the records, seriously problematic.

One internal email said: “It would be an embarrassment to the Department if it were to be published as drafted.”

Ian Drennan was also furious and in an email said: “Personally, I have nothing further to say on this subject. The manner in which this has been dealt with is nothing short of a disgrace.”

In another, he said the advert made no sense and “reads as though it was drafted by a child”.

Kevin Prendergast, the ODCE Head of Enforcement, said it did not even include a description of the actual job involved. He wrote: “What will issue tomorrow is something of a slap in the face for us all.”

The advert – with some of the mistakes corrected – did eventually appear and 46 people applied for the posts. However, interviews were delayed because of difficulties in getting a fraud expert for the panel.

In March 2016, the appointments finally went ahead after successful candidates were selected.

In a statement, the Department of Jobs said: “The challenges inherent in the recruitment of specialist staff resulted in delays recruiting these specialist staff once sanction had been secured.”

The ODCE said these resources were part of the report submitted to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in June after the botched Anglo trial.

“As the report is a confidential document, the ODCE is not in a position to elaborate further on its contents,” they said.

Part 2

THE Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) warned that it was being “compromised” on procurement laws because it did not have the capacity to analyse large amounts of electronic evidence.

The ODCE told the Department of Jobs that it did not have the in-house capacity to deal with huge amounts of data that had been seized as part of its investigations.

The corporate enforcement office had first asked for a computer expert to be hired in 2014 but the appointment did not take place until over two years later.

At one stage, even though it had been listed as a “priority” appointment, it was skipped and a potentially suitable candidate was assigned elsewhere in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

In internal Departmental emails obtained under FOI, two senior civil servants raised major concerns last summer over why it had taken so long to fill the job.

One message said: “As you know, the sanction was received in October 2014. You will see from the letter that Minister [Richard] Bruton stated very clearly that he considered the ‘filling of these posts/vacancies to be of priority importance’.

“It is very concerning to see that a post that the Minister considered a priority two years ago was not prioritised by the Department.”

In another email, a different senior civil servant asked: “Surely a post that was considered of priority importance by the Minister two years ago should have been at the front of the queue for any available and suitable staff.”

In response, one of their colleagues said the Department was having serious difficulties in filling roles that required computer expertise.

The Department had been in discussions with the ODCE about hiring a person with IT experience but in the meantime, a “critical vacancy” had emerged in another section of the Department and the candidate was placed there instead.

In September last year, an internal Departmental email noted the ODCE still did not have an IT expert and looked for “urgent sanction” to make the appointment.

The memo said: “[Their] ability to progress investigations is hampered by the lack of in-house ICT expertise to analyse electronic data seized as part of its investigations.”

Later that month – further discussions took place saying that the appointment would need to be at a higher level to get the appropriate IT skills.

One internal email said: “The idea that somebody with such exceptional/scarce ICT skills in the private sector would take a HEO [higher executive officer] post in the Civil Service is not realistic.”

The records also show that the ODCE were also consistently raising issues over their lack of a computer expert.

In July 2016, Head of Enforcement Kevin Prendergast wrote: “Our ability to progress this [a case understood to be Anglo] and other investigations is regrettably hampered by the lack of in-house expertise to analyse the electronic data seized.”

They said their ability to go through proper procurement procedures was “inevitably compromised” because they were under so much pressure to deal with tight court deadlines.

As a result, they were being forced to use professional services that had been sourced externally

Mr Prendergast wrote: “Effectively we are caught between the rock of our legislative remit in relation to the pursuit of criminal investigations and the hard place of proper compliance, as staff of the Department, with public procurement best practice.”

He asked that the Department would impress on their management the “absolute priority” of filling the vacancy.

The ODCE has said that resourcing issues form part of the report they submitted to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in the wake of the Anglo trial debacle.

Asked specifically about the procurement issues and the hiring of an IT expert, they said they had “no further comment to make”.

The Department of Jobs said in a statement: “The recruitment of specialists in the ODCE was delayed due to a number of factors including obtaining sanction for posts and competition in an improving labour market for specific skill sets.

Queried about the procurement issues, they said: “That email highlighted that the lack of IT expertise in the ODCE may hamper the Office’s ability to comply fully with public procurement practices in certain circumstances.

“The Department is not aware of any instances in which the ODCE did not comply with public procurement guidelines. Further, an IT forensics specialist was recruited by the ODCE earlier this year.”

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