Callely defends €80,000 expenses

 

Fianna Fáil Senator Ivor Callely has told a Seanad committee he would reimburse any expenses to which he was not entitled if he was found in breach of regulations.

However, the Senator said he did not believe he had ever received any money he was not due and if he had, it was “totally unintentional”.

During his three-hour appearance today before the Select Committee on Members' Interests of Seanad Éireann, Mr Callely also admitted claiming accommodation expenses to stay in house in Dublin that he owns.

Mr Callely was ordered before the Committee to explain his €81,015 travel expenses and why he claimed for the 370km journey between Leinster House and his holiday home in Kilcrohane, west Cork instead of from his residence in Clontarf, Dublin, over a two-year period.

In his opening statement to the Committee, which held its first public session this morning, Mr Callely said he felt "traumatised" following the loss of his Dail seat in Dublin North Central in 2007 and preferred to stay in west Cork. He subsequently entered the Seanad as a Taoiseach's nominee.

Mr Callely said he has always received a “very warm welcome” in west Cork. “I feel this was the right place for me to deal with the ongoing trauma I was experiencing,” he said.

He said he mostly stayed in Cork following the loss of his seat. “My home in west Cork was initially intended as a holiday home,” he said. “However, as a result of personal circumstance, this was longer to be the case.”

He said he did not make this public at the time. “I wanted to protect my family,” he told the Committee. “In hindsight, perhaps, this is a matter I should have handled this differently. And I apologise for that.”

He said the official documentation shows he was appointed to the Seanad by the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2007 “from my residence in Cork”. He said he maintained both his homes in Cork and Clontarf in Dublin, in addition to his constituency office in Killester, following his appointment. “I’ve always been open and transparent in this matter and continually informed the Houses of the Oireachtas of my circumstances.” He said he put this on record on several dates over the past three years.

“I believe the old expenses system contained options which lead to a number of anomalies which were inflexible for those who may … find themselves with a normal place of residence for periods of time during their membership of the Oireachtas separate from their family home,” he said.

Mr Callely said he tried to have his circumstances reflected in his expenses or to have them vouched. “That was not possible,” he said. He said he tried to change his normal place of residence in May 2009 and was told he could not do so until January, 2010.

He also sought clarity on the rules surrounding places of residence. “My residence in west Cork reflected that clarification," he said.

He said the new expenses regime, which came into effect in March, is also inflexible and did not address his position. He said when he received his expense cheque for March 2010, which was based on his Cork home, he returned it in full. He said he has not drawn down payments for April and May and did not claim full expenses for 2008 and 2009, when he was spending more time in Dublin.

“I think you’ll find in looking at the facts that I’ve been open and honest and have taken every reasonable action available,” he said.

In response to a question from Independent Senator Joe O’Toole, Senator Callely insisted he had not breached regulations. “For the periods of time that I did make a claim, I was resident in west Cork," he said.

Labour Party Senator Alex White asked Mr Callely if he would return the expenses if he was found in breach.

“I am found to have taken money that I should not have taken, of course I would reimburse,” Mr Callely said. “I have completed every claim form in good faith, which reflected my residency at that time.

“I don’t believe that I have received any monies that are due to be reimbursed, but if they are, I’d be happy to do so."

In response to a question from Green Party Senator Dan Boyle, Mr Callely said he stayed in his house in Clontarf when he travelled to the Seanad from Cork.

Mr Boyle said documents showed the Senator submitted claims for 45 nights in Dublin during 2009. “So you’re actually claiming money for a residence that you normally live in, whether you see it as a permanent residence or not?” he asked.

Mr Boyle said there are a number of boxes on the claims forms, one of which is for accommodation, which can be left blank. “With all these forms, you have filled in the accommodation, and the accommodation is for the use of the house you otherwise would have deemed your permanent, private residence?" Mr Boyle asked.

“That’s correct, yes,” Mr Callely said. He said this situation was “probably applicable” to other members of the House who have an apartment or house in Dublin and live in the country. He said he left Dublin as his primary address on his website because he wanted to appear to remain “committed” to the constituency.

Mr Callely effectively ruled out returning to Dublin to contest the next general election in his former constituency and told the Committee he saw west Cork as his home for the foreseeable future. He said he is not receiving expenses from his residence in west Cork.

Mr Callely said he had been the victim of “media-bashing” and, as a result, there was an “assumption” that he had done wrong, which was incorrect. “Those close to me understand fully my position,” he said.

“I didn’t intentionally set out to cause this level of upset or concern to anybody,” he said. “I regret that it has done so.”

Mr Callely declined the Committee’s offer of a private hearing to explain his personal issues.

The Committee, which is chaired by Seanad Cathaoirleach Pat Moylan, has now adjourned to sit in private session. It will deliberate on the evidence before drafting a report which will be presented to the Seanad.

If found in breach of regulations, Mr Callely could be suspended from the Seanad for 30 days.

He resigned the Fianna Fáil party whip earlier this month pending the inquiry into his expenses claims and apologised for the controversy he had caused.