Fás says Florida flight costs reimbursed


STATE training agency Fás has moved to clarify the spending it incurred for a controversial trip to Florida in July 2004 involving Minister for Health Mary Harney.

Fás accounting officer Christy Cooney yesterday told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that €32,000 was spent on flight tickets for the trip.

In the event, the Government jet, at a cost of €7,000 per hour, was used instead.

Mr Cooney told the committee the tickets had not been cancelled, adding: "What happened shouldn't have happened and we have to take responsibility for that."

In a statement after the committee meeting, however, Fás said that following "on-going extensive investigations" it had established that the flights had been reimbursed through credit notes. Fás said the chairman of the committee had been informed of this development.

The committee also heard yesterday that five Government ministers took trips with Fás to visit the same project in Florida.

The Science Challenge, which gives Irish students access to some of the top science institutes in the US, including Nasa in Cape Canaveral, Florida, attracted a large number of ministers since it was established, committee chairman Bernard Allen said.

At a cost of €1.5 million, the project has had 311 trainees, with 67 studying there at present.Mr Cooney, assistant director general of Fás, said Ms Harney had visited the project, as had Micheál Martin when he was minister for enterprise, trade and employment.

Former minister for labour affairs Tony Killeen had also gone, along with Mary Hanafin when she was minister for education, and Michael Ahern when he was minister for innovative policy at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Asked about a bill for $410 paid by a Fás credit card in July 2004 at Solutions, a hair and nail bar in Florida, Mr Cooney said they had no record of what the bill was for. The credit card was owned by now-suspended director of corporate affairs Greg Craig.

Mr Cooney was aware Ms Harney had said she availed of hair dressing on that trip and he believed someone else might have been on the bill too. The wife of former director general of Fás, Rody Molloy, had been mentioned, he said. The person who signed off on the expenses, Gerry Pyke, had retired.

Mr Cooney said the Science Challenge programme was under review, though he stressed it was good value for money and carried out invaluable work.

He also defended a decision to pay for flights to the US for businessman Paddy Duffy. He said Mr Duffy had assisted Fás in America and had "opened doors". He did not know if flights for other business people had been paid by Fás.

Mr Cooney was also questioned about the travel policy in Fás. He said the written policy was that persons would only travel executive class if necessary. There was no provision for people to travel first class, but, he said, it had been practice that they did on long flights.

He said a practice also existed that a first-class ticket could be exchanged for two tickets in economy if there was no extra cost to Fás. He was aware this had been done by the director general and assistant director general on five occasions.

Tim Duggan of the Department of Finance, and a former board member of Fás, said flight policy as set down by the department was that business class or executive class flights could be booked for trips of six hours or more, but there was no entitlement to first-class seats. There was also no provision for downgrading tickets.

Mr Cooney said he had now issued a direction that no executive director can avail of first class.

Mr Allen complained that the committee was not being provided with information and was having to read it in the media.