25% isn't a bad standard, is it SIPO?

I had a good one due to go up today, a really good one, honest. Unfortunately the judicial process took a chunk out of it, then while I was parsing data I discovered there was way more to it than I’d realised. So, I’m going to continue digging and publish that at some point in the future, when on more concrete legal ground.

In the meantime, I was due to pitch this yarn to the papers but I’ve been working 16 hour days and haven’t got ’round to it. If you’re a journo reading this, feel free to rewrite it – but I want a co-byline, which I will invoice for, muthafuckers (or at least a credit for this website, pretty please.)

Way back in July the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) published their annual report for 2008. Until about two weeks ago I was in prolonged correspondence with their press spokesperson about it.

For those unaccustomed with them, SIPO are tasked with ensuring our political parties and that crew in the Leinster House comply with the accounting rules, expenses regulations, donations limits an’ all dah’. Many of their reports, while rarely covered in the press, are worth reading. Unfortunately, they’re working with awful legislation, but doing an pretty poor job on top of that, at least in some areas, as I found out.

So, I was looking through the report the day it was published when, under the subhead “Accounting Units of political parties“, I came across this paragraph:

During 2008, the Standards Commission wrote to 202 accounting units which were identified by the relevant political parties (158 accounting units had been contacted in 2007). 62 accounting units furnished the required statutory documentation by the statutory deadline of 31 March 2008. 78 accounting units failed to furnish their statutory documentation on time. 12 branches of political parties informed the Standards Commission that they have never been an accounting unit or are no longer active. 15 accounting units did not reply.

FYI – An accounting unit is a branch of a political party.

That paragraph made my eyebrow twitch and I know when my eyebrow starts twitching, I’m onto something (that was a lie). 78 is a serious number to fail to furnish required documentation on time, but it was too big to look into on my own. 12 units informing SIPO they’re not active was of little interest, but I followed this up, and the number proved correct.

But 15 units not replying, eh? That sounds juicy. Which party branches would they be? What did SIPO do when they didn’t reply? How were they punished? I put these questions to the Commission spokesperson.

“What measures did SIPO take when the accounting units did not reply?” I asked first…

SIPOC sent three reminders to each accounting unit. A letter was also issued to the relevant party headquarters asking them to contact those from whom the outstanding documentation had not been received. Both reminders and letters to party headquarters advised that the Standards Commission would consider whether to refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Standards Commission then considered the matter and decided not to refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Of course SIPO didn’t refer it to the DPP, in fact I hear SIPO have only ever prosecuted one person since their inception, around 10 years ago. I called the office and asked about what happens after they’ve decided not to go to the DPP. They told me that if SIPO receives no reply after these measures, it assumes the branch to be inactive. A foolish assumption, I soon discovered.

“What investigation was done to confirm they were inactive?”

No investigation was carried out to confirm if these 15 units were no longer active because there was nothing to suggest either activity or inactivity.

That quote is gold, it makes no sense.

The senselessness continued as I asked more questions. “Can the Commission provide me with details of these units, broken down by political party?” They could… kind of:

While the Annual Report states that 15 accounting units did not reply, an examination of our files indicates that the current position is that 12 accounting units did not reply in writing (excluding those which are no longer active). The files now indicate that 12 Accounting Units did not reply in writing.

The people who are tasked to uphold standards in public office, including ensuring parties’ accounts are straight, got their annual report wrong? Love that. The 15 figure was a “computational error”, they claimed in a later email.

The 12 units who SIPO told me did not reply:

Fianna Fáil – Kilkenny, Sligo, Donogh O’Malley Cumann UCC, Waterford IT, Kevin Barry Cumann UCD, Donegal North East CDC

Fine Gael – Meath West, UCD Young FG

Progressive Democrats – Clare, Meath East, UCD Young PDs

And one Sinn Féin branch, Clonakilty.

Hold on, SIPO believed the Fianna Fáil Kevin Barry Cumann in UCD was inactive in 2008? The Kevin Barry Cumann – one of the largest branches of any political party in the State, according to their own website – was completely inactive last year according to Standards in Public Office Commission? That’s a hum-dinger, did nobody in the Commission watch Questions & Answers?

Being the type I am, I thought I’d check these branches out. I contacted the relevant press officer or branch official and asked them if the branches were active.

Sean Tracey, the Sinn Féin press officer told me that their Clonakilty branch is active, and has been.

Nick Miller of the Fine Gael press office said UCD Young Fine Gael was “very active, with more than 300 members” but oddly, “Meath East is a constituency, not a branch”.

Daithi Linnane, the chair of the UCC Fianna Fáil branch told me te branch is “very active, and has been for a number of years“. Waterford Institute of Technology’s FF respresentative, Michael Madders, told me about the fundraising events and trips they’d organised throughout the last 24 months. And the UCD Political Forum secretary told me that Fianna Fáil, through their Kevin Barry Cumann, had been very active on campus all year (though there was no one there to speak to me from Fianna Fáil at that time).

Donegal North East NDC is an anomaly because FF restructured around that point, so that one may actually have been inactive, though they never told SIPO, which they were required to do. Again, oddly, when I contacted the Fianna Fáil press office about the others they told me “there are a number of branches in Sligo and a number of branches in Kilkenny”. Which was a polite way of saying “we have no idea which branches SIPO are talking about”.

Ebey Campbell, auditor the Young Progressive Democrats, told me the UCD Young PDs had closed recently but were active through 2008. I couldn’t get through to anyone in either of the other PD branches, so SIPO must be right there.

Note, for balance: Mr Campbell said he had submitted all his accountancy documentation to SIPO, as did Conor King of the Kevin Barry Cumann when I managed to get in touch, Daithi Linnane of UCC Fianna Fáil said the same, and Michael Madders of WIT did too. SIPO confirmed they had received some accounting information branches more recently, though didnt specify from which accounting units.

So six of the twelve branches SIPO assumed inactive because they didn’t reply to their letters, were in fact active, including – unsurprisingly – the Kevin Barry Cumann, one of the biggest political branches in the State. And three of the other 6 are not branches at all, according to the parties. Just 3 of the 12 (which was 15) assumed by SIPO to be inactive, are inactive.

I suppose being right 25% of the time isn’t a bad Standard, is it?

When I put all my information to SIPO they told me…

“Standards in Public Office Commission will now make enquiries with Party HQ in each respective case with a view to ascertaining if there was activity on the Accounting Units’ bank accounts and the matter will be followed up.”

So the parties and people responsible for the accounting units will only be pursued if they were financially active, not because they failed to inform the State of their political activity in the 12 months covered by the SIPO report. I can’t say I’m surprised.

I know at least three were financially active. I now look forward to SIPO taking their second, third and fourth cases to the DPP.

6 thoughts on “25% isn't a bad standard, is it SIPO?”

  1. Hey Mark is Patrick McCarty I really enjoyed your article!! I haven’t seen you on facebook lately. How can we keep in touch?

  2. Fantastic work. SIPO are (as you correctly point out) somewhat tied by the fact that the legislation is incredibly cumbersome. Still, a little follow-up on a couple of these cases would rapidly teach the political parties a lesson.

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