John O’Donoghue and transparency

Back at the end of July around the time that the Sunday Tribune first published details of John O’Donoghue’s penchant for overseas travel, I decided it would be worth having a look at his travel records whilst Ceann Comhairle.

I submitted a standard FOI request looking for:

– details of all expense claims submitted by John O’Donoghue TD since his appointment as Ceann Comhairle.

– details of any overseas travel undertaken by the Ceann Comhairle to include costs and receipts for hotels, accommodation, transport, subsistence, dining, presents etc for that period.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission were willing to oblige but decided that the work required – all 28 hours of it – would cost us €586.60.

Under ordinary circumstances, this might have derailed our inquiries and forced us to reduce the scope of the request, but in light of our previous stories, we decided to press ahead.

We paid over a deposit of €117.32 and were told that work was underway to release the documents.

Certainly, behind the scenes, there appears to have been a flurry of activity.

By the time the request was dealt with, John O’Donoghue had been forced into an embarrassing public apology and decided in the interests of being “open and transparent” to release details of all his expense claims whilst Ceann Comhairle.

We contacted the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and inquired as to whether we would have the information before Mr O’Donoghue decided to place it in the Dail library.

No firm answer was forthcoming at any stage.

On September 25, the Houses of the Oireachtas again wrote to me saying that the remainder of the money, a sum of €469.28, was now due.

A letter from Margaret Crawley reads: “In fairness to you, I wish to point out that, following the Ceann Comhairle’s statement, the office began to prepare the records for public release.

“These records may become available at some stage next week. If this occurs, I will notify you and if you wish to obtain the records from that source through the Communications Unit, I will organise a refund of the full amount of the fee paid for ‘search and retrieval’ costs.”

We made a decision to forge ahead, sent off the cheque and hoped for the best.

Throughout the week, we exchanged emails with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission seeking an update on when the information would become available.

On Friday at 1.17pm, Margaret Crawley again wrote to us, saying: “It will be ready at the main gate in Leinster House … in about 20 minutes time. There are 3 envelopes.”

Eager to get our hands on these three envelopes, we had a courier deliver the package to the offices on Talbot Street.

The information was incredibly detailed, running to well over a thousand pages [although there are some omissions – more on that later].

It told of more than E100,000 spent on flights, hotels, official transport etc in less than two years.

It was not quite as extravagant as the claims made whilst O’Donoghue was in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism but at least his position then offered some excuse for the near constant overseas travel.

As we tallied up the figures, an email [not entirely unexpected] arrived from Ciaran Brennan, who works in the Communications Unit of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

It was sent at 3.38pm, less than two hours after the Offices were legally forced to hand over the data under the Freedom of Information Act.

In the interests of being “open and transparent”, the Ceann Comhairle was placing “records of all travel, accommodation and related costs … since he was elected to office” in the Dail Library.

Members of the media were invited to examine the details in Kildare House from 3.45pm.

By unhappy coincidence, many of them would have been reasonably busy covering the Lisbon vote but thankfully found time to inspect the records.

Media outlets began reporting on it immediately, pointing out that the expenses appeared smaller than those previously exposed by the Sunday Tribune.

RTE said Mr O’Donoghue had made good his promise to release the files and said it was done with a view to making the working of his office more transparent.

In case there is any remaining doubt, these documents were to become public no matter what John O’Donoghue did … and within a matter of days.

Dumping 1,000 plus pages of receipts and invoices on the day of the Lisbon referendum was most certainly “transparent”, but only in terms of a crudely transparent attempt at media manipulation.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Communications Unit, which had such a busy day on Friday, was provided with a list of 23 questions by the Sunday Tribune regarding details of John O’Donoghue’s latest expenses.

In particular, I was focusing on three things:

– at whose instigation were these trips organised.

– details relating to costs which we know are missing from the released data

– what race meetings were attended overseas.

This is the response in full for people interested in following such things.

The sentence in bold is by far the best part.

To explain, they say that no other politician was available to attend the horse racing in Longchamp in 2007 and 2008 as had happened on previous occasions.

Needless to say, the politician who had attended on all of those previous occasions was Mr O’Donoghue in his previous job as Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism.

Granted, there may be legitimate reasons why the minister responsible for sport should travel to as many overseas race meetings as possible.

Quite why it is necessary for the Ceann Comhairle to do the same thing is anybody’s guess.

The statement:

“As Chairman of Dáil Éireann, the Ceann Comhairle represents the Oireachtas in its relations with other parliamentary institutions. Foreign travel is undertaken either in response to an official invitation or in his capacity as Chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Association and as part of Ireland’s obligations to be present at, and to take part in, Inter Parliamentary Union events.

“All trips are arranged in response to invitations received or to achieve other objectives such as improving relationships with other parliaments. As part of official trips abroad, the Ceann Comhairle often receives invitations to additional functions including those which relate to his role as a previous minister where no other state representative was available to attend. For example, during official business in Paris in 2007 and 2008, he attended a gala dinner on the eve of the Prix d L’Arc de Triomphe as a guest of Baron de Rothschild, President of France Gallop (the French thoroughbred horse racing industry). As no other State representative was available to attend the prestigious horse race event, as had been the case in previous years, the Ceann Comhairle attended the race in the company of the Irish Ambassador to France.

“In relation to domestic flights undertaken by the Ceann Comhairle, due to the nature of his work and a schedule that includes late sittings and taking into account the 6-7 hour drive to Kerry, on occasion the Ceann Comhairle has used internal flights.

“The presence of Ceann Comhairle’s wife on board a number of flights was where the invitation to an official function was issued to both the Ceann Comhairle and his wife.

“The provision of services, hotel accommodation and car hire for delegations led by the Ceann Comhairle are arranged in accordance with standards provided to Office Holders and Ministers and are in line with Department of Finance guidelines.

“The Ceann Comhairle did not claim for any overnight allowances while abroad on official business and therefore is not in breach of any guidelines in his claims as a TD or office holder.

“In terms of placing the records of all travel, accommodation and related costs incurred by the Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil Library yesterday, Friday, October 2nd, the information was released in support of the statement made by the Ceann Comhairle in which he apologised unreservedly to the Irish people for certain costs incurred on foreign travel while acting as Minister. It was the earliest possible time by which the information could be prepared and released.”

Anyway, that’s all for now. I’ll post more during the week and am happy to say there is plenty more to come.

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