Denis Naughten admits to further meeting with lead broadband bidder

Minister admits he met David McCourt in Dublin in June and earlier facilitated and paid for Dáil lunch for McCourt’s family

In hot water: The Minister for Communications   Denis Naughten. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

In hot water: The Minister for Communications Denis Naughten. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has admitted he met the lead bidder for the Government’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) on two separate occasions and “facilitated” a lunch in the the Dáil for the company’s chief executive while the procurement process was ongoing.

Mr Naughten is already in hot water for accepting a dinner invitation from David McCourt, chairman of Granahan McCourt - the US investment firm in pole position to win the contract, in New York in July, which he attended with several senior officials from his department.

Mr McCourt’s company is in line to secure one the biggest public contracts ever awarded by the State, worth in excess of €500 million, should it succeed in winning the tender.

When asked at a post-Budget briefing on Wednesday if he had met with Mr McCourt on any other occasion during the procurement process, Mr Naughten initially said he didn’t recall.

However, after being passed a handwritten note by a senior department official, Mr Naughten corrected his initial statement to say that he had attended a meeting in Dublin with Mr McCourt and the secretary general and the assistant secretary general of the Department of Communications in June.

He also admitted that in April he “facilitated” a lunch in the Dáil for Mr McCourt and his family, but did not attend the lunch himself and could not say for sure who paid the bill.

Paid for lunch

On Wednesday evening Mr Naughten’s spokeswoman said the minister paid for the €37 lunch through a direct debit Oireachtas system, which deducts payments from salaries.

Mr Naughten earlier strenuously denied he had acted inappropriately or compromised the procurement process by meeting Mr McCourt.

“I don’t accept that I shouldn’t meet with bidders that are involved in this process,” he said, noting that these meetings had facilitated investment and “the build out of broadband networks in this country”. He also said he had no direct involvement in the NBP evaluation process.

“The department itself is the one that is responsible for the governance and the evaluation of the tender, I have no role or function in relation to that,” Mr Naughten said.

“The objective that I have is to try and maximise and improvement the communications infrastructure in relation to this country,” he said. “The only way I can do that is to engage with industry, not just the domestic players but also their parent companies,” he said.

Mr Naughten said he had met with executives from the other firms bidding for NBP contract, which, at one stage, included Eir and ESB-Vodafone joint venture Siro, while procurement was ongoing.

Mr Naughten dismissed suggestions that he should consider his position in the wake of reports about his meetings with Mr McCourt.

Despite insisting that Mr Naughten’s dinner with Mr McCourt in New York was primarily a social event, the Department of Communications last week published minutes from the Minister’s meeting with Mr McCourt.

At the budget briefing, Ciarán Ó hÓbáin, the senior department official in charge of broadband, said “the note from the meeting” suggests Mr Naughten’s discussion with Mr McCourt was “very much” administrative in focus. “It didn’t in any way focus on the content of a future potential bid,” he said. However, the minutes suggest issues of financing and the composition of the Granahan McCourt bidding consortium were discussed.

“As programme sponsor I would be clear that the discussion had no bearing on the procurement process,” Mr Ó hÓbáin said.