The architect of the State’s lobbying regulations has said it was “clearly unacceptable” for a lobbyist to suggest that he could avoid official channels by contacting a government minister at home.
Labour TD Brendan Howlin, who introduced the regulations as minister for public expenditure and reform in 2015, was responding to disclosures in the so-called Uber Files which revealed that the US cab-hailing firm’s lobbying efforts aimed at changing taxi regulations.
In his contacts with Uber executives in early 2016, former Department of Finance secretary general John Moran, while working as a lobbyist for the firm, suggested ways that the company could inform then minister for finance Michael Noonan about its business.
Mr Moran said, when planning an event to launch Uber’s Limerick service centre, that he could drop a note into Mr Noonan’s house on a Sunday “without it forming part of the official” department records, internal Uber records show. Mr Noonan told The Irish Times that Mr Moran may have made this suggestion in communications with Uber executives but that he did not carry it out.
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The Uber Files show that Mr Moran did not disclose his 2015 and 2016 contacts about Uber business with Mr Noonan, then minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald or senior civil servant Graham Doyle in lobbying returns for his company RHH International.
Mr Howlin said Mr Moran’s suggested action with Mr Noonan and his contacts with ministers that were not disclosed in lobbying returns were “clearly unacceptable”.
“We put in a legal framework for legitimate lobbying, anything outside that is not allowed and it is as simple as that,” he said. “I think it would be entirely unacceptable for any public official, or ex-public official, to seek to circumvent what is a legal regime agreed to by the Oireachtas and legislated for.”
Asked whether the regulator, the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo), should investigate the lobbying activities of Mr Moran and Uber in light of the revelations contained in the Uber Files, Mr Howlin said this was “a matter for Sipo to decide on the basis of the evidence now in the public domain”.
“I am not going to tell the prosecution authorities what they need to do, but in all circumstances where there is a legitimate suspicion where the law wasn’t complied with, well then there has to be an investigation and if there is clear evidence of a breach of the regulations, there should be a prosecution,” he said.
A spokesman for Sipo said that it was not in a position to respond fully to queries submitted by The Irish Times in response to the details contained in the Uber Files.
Uber’s lobbying dealings are revealed in an unprecedented leak of more than 124,000 files to the Guardian newspaper in Britain and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, of which The Irish Times is the Irish media partner.
Mr Howlin steered the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 into law, creating a register of lobbying activity requiring lobbyists to file returns showing the individuals carrying out the lobbying, the people being lobbied and the content of the lobbying.
The Labour TD said he did not believe the lobbying reforms that his party had pursued were introduced with the “vigour” he had hoped for since the party left office in 2016.
“I would like to have seen prosecutions in relation to people who flouted this. The notion that you could go around it and have a chat with somebody and not register it is simply unacceptable,” he said.
Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty TD said the Uber Files disclosures showed there was a “need to tighten up on the back channels” where government ministers were receiving information in ways that would not appear in official department records. He called for greater transparency given the new ways that people can contact ministers through private messages on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook Messenger.
“There is a real danger here that there are whole new back-channels that are operational and that allow people to avoid public scrutiny. We have had far too many cases of that,” he said, pointing to the controversy last year around text messages relating to the appointment of former minister Katherine Zappone to a UN special envoy role.
In response to questions from The Irish Times, Mr Moran has said that he “fully disclosed” his role as a lobbyist for Uber in his returns and that some of his contacts would have been exempt from disclosure under the lobbying legislation. He has said that if the regulator believes he has made any errors, he would be “more than happy to correct them”.