Oireachtas expenses FOI

I have responded to the Oireachtas, seeking all expenses data from January 1, 2003 to December 31, 2004. I have sought an estimate of how much this is likely to cost.

The Oireachtas communications office has also been in touch regarding the letter I received, and I am happy to give them an opportunity to respond:

“The letter which was sent to you about your freedom of information request used the phrase “there is a gap in the hard copy records” and this gave the impression that there was a gap in the records on members’ expenses held by the Houses of the Oireachtas. When it said that there was a gap in the hard copy records in respect of the period from 1st January 1998 to 31st March 1998 and for the month of May 2000, this means that these dates were not covered by previously existing FOI requests. You had specifically sought previously released information and we were simply trying to point out that not all of the periods sought by you were covered under previously released FOI requests.

In addition, you might wish to be aware that, the period 1st January 98 – 31st March 98 is outside the scope of FOI as FOI only came into effect in 21st April 98.

As for the three periods

April 1999 to October 1999

June 2000 to June 2001

July 2002 to June 2003

The letter said that it was unclear that the final released data is available for those periods as the material has not, as yet, been located:

Again, this may have given the impression that our records were incomplete. But this is not the case. The requests for those periods was in the early days of FOI when everything was done manually. We don’t have ready access to those files, but they’re not missing. They do exist but it will take some time and effort to locate them. You will not be charged for the time taken to locate the files but you may be charged for the retrieval and copying of the records on them which is mandatory under the FOI Acts.”

For me though, the broader point is this: expenses data should be published online as a matter of course. I should not have to FOI this information, nevermind the costs issue.

Tax defaulters list published by Revenue

The list of tax defaulters for April 1st to June 30th of this year was published by the Revenue Commission today.

First eye-catching name, Colm Carroll, who was fined a whopping €2,200. Carroll is a retired solicitor who had a very interesting career.

He was a principal partner in Dublin firm, Roger Greene & Sons with Henry Colley (son of late FF deputy leader George Colley), which the regulatory department of the Law Society began investigating in 2003.

What came thereafter was detailed by Carol Coulter in The Irish Times far better than I could: accounting shortfalls of €197,000, liabilities “disappearing”,  €32m lodged over 3 years into undisclosed bank accounts, swiss bank accounts, these boys had it all. I encourage you to read that link when you get a chance.

They didn’t do it to get one over on their clients but to rather facilitate the under-declaration of income and tax. On the taxpayer, so.

Following the investigation they were suspended and came before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) charged with misconduct. Notably, in the interim they sued the HSE for unpaid fees of €3.2m. The Law Society wanted them struck off. SDT ruled otherwise. The Society took it to the High Court.

I believe that somewhere around this point they made a settlement of €7m with Revenue and each paid €50,000 to the Law Society Compensation Fund. Thanks lads.

In the High Court Mr Justice McKechnie noted “multiple and extremely serious” breaches of  regulations, their “deceit” towards the Law Society, and at least 50 “orchestrated, intentional and conscious acts of misconduct”. But he refused to strike them off too. Why? Well, in short, because they admitted it all.

The Law Society, fair play to them, took it to the Supreme Court for the first time in the history of the State. However, the Supreme Court cannot overrule a High Court judgment unless the High Court judge had made a mistake in the law. The judge had not made a mistake.

So they weren’t stuck off.

They then sought costs totaling €100,000 from the Law Society for The Supreme Court case, and won.

That was a few months ago. Mr Carroll is retired, I’m not sure what Mr Colley is doing.

Further reading, all from The Irish Times

Solicitors blocked efforts to get data on accounts

Law Society appeal refusal to strike off solicitors

Solicitors sue HSE over unpaid fees

Supreme Court refuses to strike off solicitors

Solicitors win order on costs

If you note any other interesting names in the list do feel free to send them on to tips @ thestory DOT ie

Junket John and the public perception of politicians

John O’Donoghue wants only to save his own skin.

He cares not about apologising – or even attempting to justify himself – to the people who pay his wages, allowances, mileage, phone bills, unvouched expenses, advisers’ salaries, second residence upkeep and maintenance bills, hotel bills, office administration costs and limosine bills. Clearly.

Even when Paschal Sheehy of RTÉ doorstepped him – the first unplanned doorstepping I’ve seen here in years – he outright refused to apologise.

O’Donoghue is chair of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission which is tasked with overseeing “ongoing expenditure” and “paying all salaries and expenses and keeping and publishing accounts”. He started this job two years ago, following five years seemingly spent bathing himself in taxpayers’ cash. It has now been proven, mainly by Ken Foxe, that he is and was unqualified to fulfill such a role.

He should step down.

Yet he refuses even to give his employers – the taxpayer – the respect of a straight response. He dodged Paschal Sheehy’s question today and as Elaine Byrne points out in The Irish Times, his letter was addressed to fellow TDs, not the Irish people. Even in that statement he inexplicably refers only to the expenses he has incurred since becoming Ceann Comhairle, not his stark disregard for our money while Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism.

The excuse for this silence? I quote the man himself:

The nature of the position of Ceann Comhairle as impartial chairman of Dáil Éireann under the Constitution prevents me from becoming embroiled in public controversy in the media or on the floor of the House.

One the many reasons he should step down?

The nature of the position of Ceann Comhairle as impartial chairman of Dáil Éireann under the Constitution prevents them from becoming embroiled in public controversy in the media or on the floor of the House.

I’m no fool, obviously Junket John won’t step down of his own volition, this is Ireland. And I know the gutless Opposition won’t force him out at this point because they’d have to fill his (Italian leather?) shoes with one their own.

But the truth is that unless he goes he will continue to corrode the general perception of our public representatives from the core.

Remember politicians, no matter who wins the next election, Junket John will be in the Dáil. He taints you all.

Oireachtas expenses

Thank you to everyone for comments, suggestions and donations over the weekend in reference to our seeking information regarding expenses from the Houses of the Oireachtas, 1998 – 2008. It is all very much appreciated. I want to outline a number of options available, and what myself and Mark have looked at in terms of where to go from here.

First, donations since Friday: €520 (with more pledged in the event of moving forward). Thank you everyone.

Second, I should make a point regarding the quality of the information we are seeking. Expenses claimed by TDs and Senators are generally vague. This is a product of the system that has been constructed by the Oireachtas. The information we would receive would not be at the level of detail of recent disclosures concerning John O’Donoghue (they were from a Department). The information would be broad amounts under broad headings, containing mainly sub-total and total figures. Many expenses remain unvouched, so members are not required to produce receipts in order to claim.

The rationale for claiming this information is this: it at least puts these broad amounts, by TD/Senator, on the record. This is a starting point or foundation for where we move in terms of getting more information. All of this information is also sought for eventual inclusion into member profiles on KildareStreet. I believe getting this information on the record is worth the effort, whatever about the cost, which leads me to the next point.

There are a number of options open to us, including:

1) Inspecting the records in person
2) Restricting the request to a tighter date range, in order to reduce costs
3) Seeking to raise the full amount
4) Seeking out a TD to get the information for us

1) Remains a possibility, and may be an option for a future FOI
2) and 4) are being actively considered
3) Is I feel asking too much in one go

So our proposition is this:

Request a restricting of the date range, and receive a new cost estimate for that date range. We propose starting chronologically and first seeking all expenses data for 1998 and 1999. While we await that revised cost estimate (which I imagine would be entirely covered by donations already received), we will pursue asking a TD to table a question to get the data.

Depending on the outcome of that, we would get the 1998/99 data initially, and then go after the following years over the coming months, spreading the cost out. People would also get to see the quality (or lack of quality) of the data we are receiving from the Oireachtas.

Post script: I shared a byline on a story in the today’s Irish Examiner about this issue.

Minister Martin Cullen's Paddy's Day Spending

Martin Cullen’s expenses are not madly abusive, he’s no John O’Donoghue. The only part of this that made me raise an eyebrow was the €444 spent on the BAA VIP Suite.

These are the files from his trip to the US for St.Patrick’s Day earlier this year, the Indo covered it at the time.

He and his private secretary traveled from Dublin to Heathrow to Houston then moved onto Miami where they spent Patty’s Paddy’s Day. Total spend was approximately €10,500 according to the Indo.

The documents are pretty tricky to total if you’re not used to reading their likes, plus the ones I have are only for Cullen personally, so my total is lower than the one reported in the Indo.

As far as I can tell, his flights cost a little more than €6,500, there’s no details as to the flight of which he availed. The Houston Hilton; three nights at $139 each is €330. Then the €444 in the BAA VIP suite. The €868 on page two looks like subsistence expenses…

So my total is around €8000.

Eh, does this mean the private secretary’s trip cost just €2,500? Or the figure supplied to the Indo is incorrect? Tell me what I’ve missed here…

Cullen US St Patrick’s Day 2009 1
Cullen US St Patrick’s Day 2009 2
Cullen US St Patrick’s Day 2009 3
Cullen US St Patrick’s Day 2009 4
Cullen US St Patrick’s Day 2009 5
Cullen US St Patrick’s Day 2009 6
Cullen US St Patrick’s Day 2009 7

PS Sorry for the delay on these, I’m working a lot and my scanner is fairly slow. I knocked this post together in ten minutes whilst hungover, so there’s also a possibility I got my maths wrong.

These documents have been graciously supplied to us by Ken Foxe, Public Affairs Correspondent with The Sunday Tribune.

TD and Senate expenses 1998 – 2008

No, we don’t have the expenses, yet anyway. But we have started the process. In August I sent the following FOI request to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (the crowd who manage the Dail and Seanad):

August 17, 2009

Request for access to records under the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003

Dear Sir/Madam,

In accordance with Section 7 of the above mentioned Acts, I wish to request access to the following records which I believe to be held by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (“the Commission”):

1) A breakdown of all expenses claimed by TDs broken down by TD and by the following calendar years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997

2) A breakdown of all expenses claimed by Senators broken down by Senator and by the following calendar years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997

3) The guidelines provided to TDs and Senators on how they can claim expenses. A guide as to what they are and are not allowed to claim and what documentation is required in order to claim expenses.

My preferred form of access to these documents is in digital format.

Given that much if not all of this information has already been found and produced I do not anticipate that any exemptions will be required nor that any further costs other than the standard €15 charge will be incurred.

If you decide to request further payment I would like to be provided with an itemised fees receipt outlining precisely why an additional cost is required.


Gavin Sheridan

I since received a phonecall, outlining that data from 2005 on (since it has been digitised), would be made available in September. So the other part of my FOI refers to information between 1997 (1998 really since the FOI Act does not cover 1997) and 2004, or stuff that has not been digitised and is sitting in boxes somewhere. Today I received an estimated cost for search and retrieval of this information.

There are two newsworthy snippets in the letter. First, the bad news:

“After consideration and consultations, I estimate that the services of staff members totalling 110 hours will be the minimum required to efficiently complete the search and retrieval work on the balance of your request for the years 1998 to 2004… The prescribed amount chargeable for each such hour is €20.95 resulting in a fee of €2,304. Additionally, it is estimated that a total of 3,200 pages containing the records for the period from 1998 to 2004 will have to be photocopied, resulting in a further charge of €136.00 with the overall fee amounting to €2,440.”

Yes, you read that right.

Second, the not so bad news:

“… there is a gap in in the hard copy records in respect of the period from January 1, 1998 to March 31, 1998. In addition, it is unclear that the final released data is available for the following periods as the material has not, as yet, been located:

April 1999 to October 1999
June 2000 to June 2001
July 2002 to June 2003

If you require retrieval of these records it is likely to involve a substantial number of man-hours and a corresponding increase in the fee to be charged. I would be grateful if you would let me know if you require those records.”

Why is this not so bad? Well the news aspect firstly. The Houses of the Oireachtas have so far been unable to locate expenses data for a combined period of 29 months. Eh? Not alone that, they want to charge me to find this information. Information that really should be in the public domain anyway. But we have to deal with the system we have…

Why do we want this data? Because we want a full historical account of all expenses claimed on record, for all national public representatives. It is also data that would be integrated into KildareStreet.

I’m gonna throw this question at our readers, what do you think we should do?

I have a few ideas on how to proceed, but I’d like to get some feedback first.

Please note though: We have not decided as yet to proceed with raising this level of funding, so please don’t donate specifically for this data. We will decide how to proceed next week.

The Fás Report – miss anything?

There seems to be corruption in the air.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) published its report on Fás, a body already renowned for its flippant spending of our money, today. Oh boy, it does make interesting reading. The newspapers are on it, check them out when you can.

While the headline on Irishtimes.com is, as usual, correct, it is a severe understatement. “C&AG criticises Fás financial controls” it says… the report is not a criticism, it’s damning indictment. Fás was a mess, a shameful joke of a company, a shambles run by people who were clearly inept.

Most of the interesting information centres around the advertising firms contracted for campaigns and the Corporate Affairs section of Fás, headed by Greg Craig, who has had some attention drawn to him in the past.

The coverage will tell you there is €600,000 of our money unaccounted for, yes. They made us pay €9,200 for a car that never materialised, yes. They spent €620,000 on a advertising campaign that never made air, yes. These are all fucking disgraces. But they also distract, or at least fail to fully illustrate, the evidence of a culture which lacks any sort of professionalism and the level of conscious mismanagement that permeates the company. Continue reading “The Fás Report – miss anything?”

New car sales figures and other stats

[Cross posted from my own blog]

New figures were released today, and they are not pretty. I’ve tabulated all new car sales on file from the CSO, that is since 1965:


Here is the large version of that image.

New car sales are now hovering around what they were at least 15 years ago. I’ve put the data into a public spreadsheet.

Another illustrative chart is house completions since 1975. We have returned to levels last seen in 1992.


Full size pic here.

Another very illustrative chart, especially in the context of NAMA is this graph. It shows average house prices since 1975.


Where do you reckon prices are going naturally? If you draw a line from 1975 along the average until the bubble started around 1996/1997 and keep going… prices would be headed back to around 4 times average salary, circa €120,000.

Full size chart here.

The missing departmental submission

On Friday night the departmental submissions on foot of the McCarthy Report were published on Finance.gov.ie.

Gavin has written about the details in the House of the Oireachtas Commission report, and an apparent inaccuracy in their figures on his blog. I have summarised most of the proposals from Education here.

These are important documents that, due largely to the Government’s expert timing, have been hidden beneath other news, leaving the public largely unaware of their details. The details are crucial, they tell what is coming down the tracks, it was an underhand move on the Government’s part to publish late on a Friday…

I was cross-referencing the submissions against the McCarthy report earlier and noticed, there’s one missing. Enterprise.

The dept of finance press office says they are expecting it to be submitted later today.

… Wonder what they’ve spent all this time redacting…

Suggestions wanted for TheStory.ie donations

A number of people have contacted us over the last few weeks wondering if they could chip in a few quid to help us fund our work… now they can. See: Paypal donate button, on your right.

Now, as those who have read our prior posts will know, we’re always harping on about transparency and the wisdom of The Crowd. However, at the minute we’re unsure as to how to set up our donations system in the most transparent, but practical, way possible.

At present the donate button is linked to Gavin’s PayPal acount (to which I also now have access), that’s a temporary measure, we plan to open a joint account specifically for TheStory donations. When we get that sorted here’s what I’m suggesting: We publish details – monetary amounts, name of donor, general location – in a post at the end of each month.

Then, we will receipt spending and publish it all here. These would essentially be our receipts, made public when the story is complete or gone stale… FOI, Land Registry, CRO and all other government documents would be included…

Gavin wonders if people will be comfortable having their names listed as donors – I said if they can provide a solid reason why their name should not be published, we’ll accept that but names should be published by default perhaps.

Any alternative suggestions?

FYI: Circa €250 has already been spent on FOIs etc in the last three weeks, would people agree that this would be covered? Opinions wanted. No profit will be made from this, all time, travel expenses and communication costs etc will be taken from our own pockets.