Auditors criticise spending by Kildare and Wicklow training body

Board gave contracts to family members in breach of rules, says State watchdog

 Nearly €20,000 was spent in 2015 at one five-star hotel and golf resort – a third of all of the accommodation costs incurred by the organisation that year.  Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Nearly €20,000 was spent in 2015 at one five-star hotel and golf resort – a third of all of the accommodation costs incurred by the organisation that year. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board repeatedly broke public contract rules and indulged in “excessive” spending on five-star hotels, according to an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The audit by the State’s spending watchdog into the KWETB found that some suppliers received contracts from the organisation even though information existed that cast doubt over their qualifications.

In January 2017, the State audit team requested documentation from KWETB about contracts awarded to 22 suppliers, but received sufficient information on just 10 of the contracts. Four of them raised “significant concerns”.

Former KWETB chief executive Seán Ashe had failed to declare ties to family members with interests in two companies that received contracts from the KWETB, the audit found.

One contract to upgrade a secondary school heating system was awarded to a company which had a family tie to Mr Ashe.

The audit report found a staff member had emailed Mr Ashe to point out the successful company’s bid “did not meet the minimum standards,” set for public procurement deals. The report said Mr Ashe instructed the staff member “to proceed with the engagement of the successful bidder”.

In another procurement process, the deadline for firms to bid was reduced from 15 to 5.5 days, and only one company applied for the contract. Following queries from the audit team, Mr Ashe declared a family member had an interest in the company that secured the contract.

The audit report was critical the chosen contractor “did not meet the minimum standards in relation to turnover and experience” and had only been set up three months prior to the procurement bid notice.

The number of breaches cast doubt on the “overall integrity” of the organisation’s procurement practices, including the use of truncated deadlines, the failure to impose minimum qualifying standards and lack of a paperwork trail. The findings were accepted by the current KWETB chief executive, Dr Deirdre Keyes.

Better value

Nearly €20,000 was spent in 2015 at one five-star hotel and golf resort – a third of all of the accommodation costs incurred by the organisation that year. One trip alone cost €10,450, the audit found.

Responding to questions, Mr Ashe told auditors the trip was a “two-day strategic planning meeting” , but C&AG inspectors found “ no evidence of any attempts to achieve value for money”.

The current chief executive accepted the C&AG’s conclusion, and said KWETB were reviewing their hospitality and travel policies, to ensure better value for money.

In January 2016, the ETB had purchased a van for €12,715, which was then sold at auction a year later for €5,500. However, a payment was not received until October 2017, after auditors raised questions.

The audit found documentation around the sale was “confusing and incomplete,” and concluded there were concerns “as to the regularity of this transaction”.

A previous investigation by Dr Richard Thorn, carried out for the Department of Education, raised similar concerns around financial practices at the State-run education board, which has since been passed to An Garda Síochána.

Mr Ashe retired from KWETB in December 2017, and could not be contacted for comment on the findings of the C&AG report.