Donations to senators 2002 – 2008

When this site first went live we posted spreadsheets of all know political donations made to TDs and political parties – you can view them here and here (annotations have been made to some donations to add relevant details about the donor).

We now have a spreadsheet for donations made to individual senators. There’s not too many, but they’re there now and will later be added to the KildareStreet database.

Donations to Irish senators 2002 -2008

Joan Burton’s FOI refusal

Part two of Joan Burton’s FOI concerned communications between the Department of Finance and Anglo Irish bank (I will post the exact wording of the request later). For now though here is the full extent of the refusal. It contains references to released information that I have not yet received from Ms Burton, but I will be seeking.

Refusals are useful in telling you exactly what records exist, as in this case.

Oireachtas expenses 2002, 2001

Readers might remember that back in August I first put in a request for all expenses of all TDs and Senators since records began, or as far as the FOI act allows (1998). The purpose of the request is two fold – one for the public record and two for integration into member profiles.

This FOI, and series of FOIs and appeals has now been in process for four months. Thus far we have received in various forms, all expenses for TDs and Senators for 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008. I sent a separate FOI for the years 2002 and 2001. But it might be worth taking people through the chronology to fully understand where we are now.

August: Initial FOI sent seeking all records of expenses for 10 years.

September 11: I blog that I have received a reply. The Oireachtas said: “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.”

And: “… 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″

I read this to mean that the records themselves had not been located, but the Oireachtas sought to tell me that the records did actually exist, just they had not been previously FOId, therefore the gaps existed for information that had not been previously FOId. I shared a byline in the Examiner with Fiachra about these gaps, and the Oireachtas contacted me the next day. I was told over the phone that “the records are certainly there” and I subsequently gave the Oireachtas press officer right of reply on this blog where he said:

“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.”

September: I vary my request, first seeking 2005 to 2008 in digital format and at no cost, and also seeking 2003 and 2004 in complete form in terms of calendar years. In other words without the gap between June and December 2003. I also send another separate FOI seeking the complete calendar years 2002 and 2001.

October 15: I receive documents containing all expenses data for 2005 – 2008. I blog it here. I also receive a reply for my 2002/2001 request, stating that they were citing Section 10 (1) (c) of the Act: “granting the request would by reason of such number of records or an examination of such kind of records concerned as to cause substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of work of the public body concerned”.

Incidentally, the Sunday Tribune also led with the data published here. As did The Kerryman, The Sligo Weekender used the data also, and the Dundalk Democrat.

October 17: I send the following appeal to the Oireachtas (costing €75).

Oireachtas Appeal Section 10 (1) (c)

November 2: I receive expenses data for 2003/2004 complete, and publish them online. This release had in my opinion been pushing the time limits of the initial FOI to the maximum.

November 10: I receive a reply to my appeal, which I am publishing here for the first time.

The Oireachtas has agreed to release expenses data for the calendar years 2002 and 2001. However contrary to the views expressed by the Oireachtas press officer, that “no documents are missing”, there are in fact missing documents. The reason given is that some documents are destroyed once the accounts have been audited. Here is the money part:

I am refusing access to the records for 2001 and 2002 in relation to the expenses
claimed from the Grants-in-aid in respect of inter-parliamentary activities and the
British Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body as it has not been possible to find the records in
question – which would have been created in hard copy format only. These records
are outside of the main electronic accounting system for the office so details of claims
paid are not available through this system. I should point out there is a general rule
that permits the destruction of records, particularly hard copy records, relating to the
accounts for a particular year once those accounts have been audited by the
Comptroller and Auditor General and reported on by the Committee of Public
Accounts. This process would generally conclude within 2/3 years of the end of a
particular accounting year.

I have decided to grant you access to all the other records – which account for the
bulk of the records requested – which fall within the scope of your appeal. Please note
that the records do not include salaries of TDs and Senators as salaries do not fall
within the category ‘expenses’. The records relating to this decision will be sent to
you under separate cover in the next few days.

Oireachtas appeal reply

So now we will have expenses data for 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008. Minus some information. I have also already got a hold of interparliamentary expenses for 2005 – 2008.

Not a painful process at all, is it? What puzzles me is why they cited Section 10 (1) (c) at all and why the original request was quoted at nearly €2,500, yet I have now received almost the entire amount for under €100. As they say in the US: go figure.

Minister for Finance – Diary Oct 1998 to April 1999

When I requested the Taoiseach’s diary for the period between the introduction of the FOI Act and March 31 1999 – which can be viewed here – I made the same request to Finance. I have since received it and uploaded it to Scribd.

Minister for Finance (Charlie McCreevy) Diary April 21 1998 t0 September 31 1999 and October 1 1998 to March 31 1999.

It has been OCRd and can be searched by keyword using the document search field in the lower right hand corner of the Scribd box, alternatively you could download and use Ctrl+F to look for what you’re after.

Ireland's notification to the European Commission

I was interested in some FOI work that Deputy Joan Burton had been doing lately on Anglo Irish Bank, so I contacted her and asked for any documents or refusals she had received. She was kind enough to copy everything and post them down to me. I have now scanned and OCRd the documentation.

First up is Ireland’s notification to the European Commission surrounding the injection of €1.5bn of capital into the bank. It runs to over 50 pages and contains some curious stuff. Many of the handwritten notes are I believe by Deputy Burton herself, or her staff. But there are other curious oddities, some of which are highlighted.

Firstly the document appears to have been poorly redacted. There are strikethroughs throughout the document with notes afterwards such as “[Confidential – commercially sensitive][Department to confirm]”. What appears to have happened is that a draft of the document was released, rather than a redacted version. The draft contains the internal notes around what should or should not be redacted. One gem (and this is dated January 2008) is “Anglo Irish Bank is considered a fundamentally sound institution”. With a note beside saying it might be “commercially sensitive” to say so.

Not alone that, but further down it says (with a line through it)

The assessment by Merrill Lynch supports the position that Anglo Irish Bank is fundamentally sound.[Confidential – commercially sensitive][Department to confirm]

Another gem which was marked for redaction, marking points arguing in favour of capital injection:

The assessment that there was a low likelihood that Anglo Irish Bank would be successful in raising additional equity from existing shareholders and new private investors Confidential – commercially sensitive][Department to confirm]

Also this very interesting paragraph around future planning:

As noted above, on account of Anglo Irish Bank’s specific business model, which is specialised in commercial property lending and property development finance, not all of the elements of the agreed credit package will directly impact on Anglo Irish Bank, at least initially. However, given the envisaged future changes in the Bank’s business model and strategic direction under its restructuring plan, it is anticipated that in time further elements of the credit package will become applicable to Anglo Irish Bank accordingly [Confidential —commercially sensitive for Anglo Irish Bank] [Department to confirm]

Finally, there is this further reference to Anglo’s future:

On account of Anglo Irish Bank’s specific business model, which is specialised in commercial property lending and property development finance, not all of the elements of the agreed credit package will directly impact on Anglo Irish Bank, at least initially. However, given the requirement to prepare a restructuring plan within a six month period as part of the recapitalisation initiative, future changes in the business model and strategic direction of Anglo Irish Bank are likely to bring about a closer alignment between the lending activities of the Bank and the credit needs of the real economy. As a result it is anticipated that in-time further elements of the credit package will become applicable to Anglo Irish Bank accordingly. [Confidential – business secret] [Department to confirm].

Of course questions need to be asked. This document is dated January 8. The Government already had the PwC reports into Anglo and must have had some idea of the scale of the problems at the bank. Yet Merrill was still claiming Anglo was fundamentally sound just a week before the bank was nationalised. Not alone that, all references to the bank being fundamentally sound were marked for redaction.

There is one final section that sums up the entire sorry mess, my emphasis:

Anglo Irish Bank is a focused business bank with a private banking arm. The Bank provides business banking, treasury and wealth/management services. It is not a universal bank and its stated strategy is niche rather than broad market. Each of its customers deals directly with a dedicated relationship manager and a product specialist.

Yet in the same breath we are told the Anglo is of systemic importance. So which is it?

Ireland’s note to the Commission [PDF]

Ireland Note to the European Commission

Taoiseach's diary April 1998 to December 1999

I had reason to FOI the Taoiseach’s diary for the period between the FOI Act coming into effect (April 19th 1998) and December 1998 recently. It’s now up in case someone else has use for it too. It has been OCR’d – to search press ctrl+F and enter your term, then hit return.

Redactions marked ‘A’ are so because the department believes them to be “personal information” as defined in Section 28 of the FOI act. Entries marked ‘B’ relate to the Taoiseach’s private papers as a member of the Oireachtas. Regards ‘B’ redactions – the cover letter from the FOI officer states “Section 46 of the Act states, inter alia, that the Act does not apply to records relating to any of the private papers of a member of the Oireachtas and as such I consider that the Act does not apply to these entries.”

News stories from around that period include:

The OECD warning our economy may be overheating

“Overheating is the chief risk facing the Irish economy in the run-up to Economic and Monetary Union, the OECD warned in its latest economic outlook. It said signs of overheating were already evident, such as labour shortages in a number of skilled trades and a boom in housing and other asset prices.”

The Garda Commissioner appointing a team to investigate the tapping of the phones of George Lee and Charlie Bird

A decision being made on whether on not members of the public should charged for making an FOI request

The Government debating the merits of recommendations made in The Bacon Report

Local authorities in the greater Dublin area will be required by statute to ensure that their development plans comply with strategic guidelines for the region, according to the Minister for the Environment

John O’Donoghue, then minister for justice, denying he was attempting to shield holders of Ansbacher accounts

An angry Minister for Justice, Mr O’Donoghue, said he gravely resented any suggestion that the Government was in some way trying to shield any Ansbacher account holder. This was false and malicious.

The Minister was reacting to a claim by Mr John Connor (FG) that he intended to “hold in check at all costs” the powers of the Moriarty Tribunal in relation to the accounts.

Cabinet postponing setting up the Standards in Public Office Commission

Mary Banotti appearing before the Old Bailey

and lastly, Pee Flynn.

…though there may be nothing relevant in the document to any of the above.

Footnote: I’m sure someone will note that Bertie met the head of “The Ancient Order of Hibernians” on March 5th 1999. If ever there was a reason to polish up those tin-foil hats, lads… that is surely a secret society.

Seriously though, Bertie sure could open stuff.

Documents and OCR

Part of what we believe is our job here at is not just to dig out new information via FOI requests. Another important part of the work we are doing will be to make existing information more accessible. We have already started this work through importing TD donations and expenses into Google spreadsheets, centralising the data and opening it up to Google bots. It also allows anyone else to come in and retool or visualise the data we share.

But another important effort is this: publish existing documents in a more accessible format. We have already found hundreds of Government documents online that are scanned without OCR, meaning the contents of the documents are not searchabe, nor (for the moment anyway) are they indexed by Google in a consistent way. Many of these documents are legacy, some from as far back as the mid 1990s.

We have begun a process of downloading these documents, OCRing them, and reuploading them. We will publish all documents to the new Scribd account, as well as to Google Documents. This will mean two things. First the documents will be indexed by Google, second the documents will become instantly more usable to the general public, thus in a small way, creating a more transparent government, and one slightly more accountable to the people. We are under no illusions that this effort will have any instant or major effect, but it will have a gradual one. And this furthers our aims for helping create a more transparent Ireland.

The Dual Abode Allowance

The Examiner scooped me on Monday morning with their lede about the dual abode allowance, a story billed as a “revelation“.

I’d be working on-off on a piece on the DAA since August having heard it was racket for non-Dublin ministers.

To briefly explain: The Dual Abode Allowance is open to ministers and ministers of state from constituencies outside Dublin. It’s an income tax deduction which they can claim in a number of ways, depending on where they say they stay whilst attending the Dáil. There are no details on who avails of it, Revenue Commissioners cite “personal taxpayer confidentiality”, and several FOIs have been bounced in the last decade for the same reasons. So we know little of which ministers benefit from it, or to what extent. It’s rarely reported on due to this derth of information, though journalists and politicians know it’s there, and due to its quiet nature, it could be abused. It’s not a secret, if you ask someone relevant – even a politician –  about it and they’ll admit it exists – it’s not the Delta Force of allowances, as some may have you believe*.

It works like this; if a minister or minister of state has a second home in the capital they can claim an allowance on the mortgage for that property and on the costs of maintaining it. The maintenance costs must be vouched, unless they wish to opt for a flat-rate allowance of €6,500 (nice option, huh?). Furthermore, if the property is purchased while they’re in office they can claim for the full costs of the solicitors and auctioneers fees involved.

Ministers who rent accommodation can claim allowance for the full rent that plus maintenance costs, or a flat-rate of €4,500 per annum.

Lastly, if they’re using a hotel or guesthouse while in Dublin they can claim for the full cost of staying there, plus “additional costs associated with maintaining a second residence in a hotel” (whatever they may be, in a hotel – considering they can claim subsistence expenses generally also). A relative or friend’s house may constitute a guesthouse.

18 office holders availed of the allowance in 2005, 15 in 2006 and 16 in 2007, according to documents volunteered in August to me by the Revenue Commissioners after a brief phone call. A follow up email resulted in them supplying totals from 2002, 2003 and 2004 also. I’ve put all that documentation into one file, it can be viewed here and includes breakdowns for 2005, 2006 and 2007, which may interest some. That is the same information Shaun Connolly used for his story on the front of Monday’s Examiner, which was followed up on Tuesday and Wednesday. As he correctly points out, the cost over five years to the exchequer was just more than €550,000.

While that may seem a large figure in its own right, I didn’t think much of it upon receipt of the information. At least 18 different ministers, over three years, an average of circa €5,000, it’s not going to bring down the house – sure, the Leinster House lads spend that in a weekend at the races. I thought there may have been more to it than simply the €550,000 number, so I went looking.

I took the names of cabinet ministers who could avail of allowance and their wives names to the Land Registry to see if any of them owned property in Dublin. After checking out the results, I had drawn a bit of a blank (such is journalism; shadows, cul de sacs etc) so I tried cross referencing a few bits and pieces.

I gathered the names of every person who had occupied a minister or minister of state’s position in since 2004 and began some serious Microsoft Excelling. When I had the list of names I added their constituencies to see how many would have been able to claim the allowance each year. This wasn’t as simple as it may sound, reshuffles meant 2 ministers occupied one post in the same year. The results of the cross referencing can be seen on sheet two of this document:

  • 24 could have claimed DAA in 2004 – 13 did.
  • 23 in 2005 – 18
  • 24 in 2006 – 15
  • 28 in 2007 – 18

The numbers of claimants were not supplied for the other years, so it could not be calculated.

2005 had the smallest differential between claimants and possible claimants, so I worked on that to try and discover who exactly was claiming the allowance that year. I found this article by Harry McGee from last year in The Irish Times archive which gave me some more info. McGee reported that Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern travel home each night after the Dáil, making it logical to assume they don’t claim the allowance.

That reduces the differential to 3… two of the possible claimants, Barry Andrews and Mary Hanafin, are from Dun Laoghaire, which is easily within driving distance of the Dáil (particularly when you’ve a ministerial car and driver), so it may be fair to assume they don’t sleep in the city when the Dáil is in session. Assuming they don’t claim leaves one non-claimant from 2005 that we don’t know about. Taking it that a minister claiming the allowance in 2005 has continued to do so, we can logically conclude that all bar one of the following is claiming DAA:

Mary Coughlan, Brendan Smith, Martin Cullen, Eamon O’Cuiv, Willie O’Dea, Batt O’Keeffe, Micheal Martin, Dick Roche, Tony Killeen and Michael Finneran.

However, that relies on the taking Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey assertions that they travel home as a statement that they don’t claim the allowance and the assumption the two Dun Laoghaire representatives don’t claim.

In the end I got nothing unexpected, sometimes you chase stories and get nothing, no regrets.

Of course, the real story would be if Brian Cowen was still claiming it for his apartment behind the Four Courts, while having use of Farmleigh as Taoiseach. That was what I ultimately wanted to discover, unfortunately I didn’t have the resources to do so. Someone should consider asking An Taoiseach that question…

Note: A TD is claiming whilst not using the property personally – e.g. allowing a son or daughter to use the property while attending college in Dublin – is what is referred to in the UK as ‘house flipping’. And we know what happened when MPs admitted to that

Footnote A: I am aware there is an FOI being appealed on further details of the DAA at present.

Footnote B: It was still worth going after the bigger story to get scooped on the smaller one.

Footnote C: Enda Kenny has said he will abolish this allowance if he becomes Taoiseach; populist rhetoric of which I believe not a word. But I’ve taken note.

* now that you know about the uber-secret allowance, I will have to kill you.


Just some housekeeping items to keep readers informed.

From now on, and soon to be applied retrospectively, all FOI documents will be subject to an OCR process prior to upload to the internet. This means that the documents can be ‘read’ by Google bots, and added to the Google index. It also means large scale documents can be searched for keywords. We believe this will add greater transparency to the documents we put into the public domain. The software we will be using will be Abbyy Finereader.

This should also serve as a warning. All too often Departments and public bodies are choosing to release information in hard copy, despite the information in question being held digitally, and our requests including a preference for digital versions. Where we receive information in hard copy, it will be scanned, OCRd and uploaded to the internet. There will be no escaping the Google spiders that are coming.

Additionally, some of our recent requests have been rejected, citing numerous exemptions. Where we believe these rejections are without merit we will appeal. This is a costly and time consuming process, but we believe that in the long run such a policy will pay dividends. Up until now it has been traditional for the main drafters of FOI requests, journalists, to almost always accept and never appeal rejections (either through lack of time, lack of funds, unfamiliarity with the Act or a combination of any of the three). This will not be our policy.

Where we believe the Act is in our side, we will vigorously pursue appeals all the way to the Information Commissioner and/or the High Court. We believe this policy is to the benefit of everyone who submits FOI requests, to the media, and to the public at large.

Lastly, we want to thank everyone who has donated money to assist us with our requests and appeals. We hope that the relatively constant stream of results being put online (and the subsequent stories in the newspapers based on our FOIs) are reward enough for such donations. We believe greater transparency using the internet is change we can believe in.