Extravagant spending while on foreign trips led to public outcry

 

ANALYSIS:JUST AS bills for cleaning a moat, laying a pipe under a tennis court and installing an artificial island in a duck pond dominated the scandals over MPs’ expenses in Britain, it is specific instances of extravagant spending by John O’Donoghue – as much as the overall cost to the taxpayer – that have made his foreign travel such a high-profile controversy.

As details have emerged over the past two months about his foreign travel expenses and use of the Government jet during his five years as minister for arts, sport and tourism, it has been items such as the payment of €472 to hire a limousine to transfer him between two terminals at Heathrow airport; an €80 tip to “Indians” for luggage porter services; and his use of the Government jet to fly back from Cannes to a constituency event in Kerry that have led to public outcry.

Overall, the Ceann Comhairle’s spending on foreign travel in his former ministerial post between 2002 and 2007 is estimated to have cost the taxpayer €555,000 when the cost of using the Government jet is included.

As a departmental statement issued at the end of July (and included with his letter to TDs yesterday) notes: the minister’s brief included travel to high-profile events like the Olympics, World Cup matches, the Cannes Film Festival and the Venice Biennale and the costs of flights and accommodation for those events “invariably involve a high premium worldwide”.

However, what has led to the extensive media coverage and the strong criticism has been sheer number of foreign trips for non-premium events (he travelled abroad some 50 times in total during the five years); the size of the delegation which often included his wife, Kate Ann, as well as some of the bills (€900 per night hotel accommodation in Venice; almost €10,000 for limousine hire during a week spent in London and at the Cheltenham races).

The controversy first emerged in late July this year when a report based on a Freedom of Information request disclosed that Mr O’Donoghue, his wife and his private secretary ran up a travel bill of more than €100,000 between 2005 and 2007.

The figures, cited by the Sunday Tribune, also listed items of expenditure that were politically embarrassing, not only for Mr O’Donoghue but for a Fianna Fáil-led Government implementing the harshest series of austerity measures for at least two decades.

Among the items were a cost of €9,616 for car hire in Cannes, €120 for hat rental in London, €250 for a water taxi in Venice and the €80 in tips to porters during a trip to India.

His then private secretary’s claim for that tip stated the cash had “been forked out to the Indians for moving the luggage around airports, hotels etc”.

In the only concession to the criticisms, Mr O’Donoghue said in yesterday’s letter that some of the costs incurred appeared high. He said he sincerely regretted that but added the rider that a minister or office-holder would not be apprised of such expenditure and they were all in accordance with Department of Finance guidelines.

However, some of the costs appeared to be very high, especially the thousands of euro spent for limousine hire. Mr O’Donoghue attended the Cannes film festival regularly when minister. In May 2006, his bill at the Hotel Montfleury came to €990 a night with car hire for the trip amounting to almost €10,000. Another €10,000 was spent on limousine hire during a week-long trip to London and Cheltenham.

Similarly, when he stayed for two days at the Hotel le Bristol in Paris in 2006, he and his wife’s bill came to €1943.80, or over €970 a night.

In early August, it emerged that Mr O’Donoghue had used the Government jet for six consecutive days in 2007, during which he flew to Cannes, back to Ireland, and then on to Wales and London before flying back to Cannes once more. The Irish-leg of the trip proved most contentious, as it was disclosed that Mr O’Donoghue had returned in the jet solely to attend a constituency event in Kerry. The use of the jet for that trip alone came to €32,450.

Over subsequent weeks there was a steady stream of fresh disclosures in the media, most relating to Mr O’Donoghue but also looking at other ministers’ travel expenses and use of Government aircraft. The Irish Timesreported in early August that Government ministers had taken 144 internal flights on Government aircraft within the State between 2007 and 2009 at a total cost of €350,000 to the taxpayer. The Sunday Tribune’s reports ran over six weeks, including last Sunday when it reported that Mr O’Donoghue had been on 36 foreign trips in his first three years as minister, including five trips to the US, a trip to Australia and New Zealand, as well as a trip to China.

Aside from the statement released by his former department on July 27th, Mr O’Donoghue made no comment whatsoever on the controversy until yesterday, with the three-page letter to his Dáil colleagues. Nor was there any official reaction from Fianna Fáil or any of the main Opposition parties during that time. Some of his constituency colleagues were critical about the spending. Only two politicians, Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Fine Gael Senator Paschal Donohoe publicly questioned the tenability of his position.

Neither Mr O’Donoghue nor his spokesman were available for comment during the summer. The Ceann Comhairle was due to host a reception in Leinster House for Rose of Tralee contestants on August 17th but it was cancelled at short notice on the grounds that renovation work was taking place at the complex. On his return from holidays, Mr O’Donoghue refused to discuss the matter when questions were put to him by reporters. The Sunday Tribunesaid it received a solicitor’s letter from Mr O’Donoghue last week.

In his letter, Mr O’Donoghue states that it “simply would not be proper, however tempting, for me, whether inside the House or outside the Hose, to become involved in public debate concerning my previous roles as minister.”