‘Dolphin ice sculpture’ part of €13,000 spend on Cork IT chief’s departure

Education secretary general, who went to function, says celebrating long-service ‘appropriate’

An ice sculpture was among the items included in the €13,000 spend to mark the retirement of the former president of Cork Institute of Technology. Image: iStock.

An ice sculpture was among the items included in the €13,000 spend to mark the retirement of the former president of Cork Institute of Technology. Image: iStock.

 

The Department of Education was not aware that €13,000 of public money was spent on classical musicians, drapes and an ice sculpture of a dolphin to mark the retirement of the ex-president of Cork Institute of Technology (CIT).

Fianna Faíl TD Marc MacSharry told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Thursday that the spending, which covered two separate functions, was approved by Dr Brendan Murphy himself before he stepped down in August.

The department’s secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú, who appeared before the committee, was asked what he knew about the spending and urged to introduce mandatory guidelines for staff parties .

Some €5,500 was spent on “tables, frames drapes and audio-visual setup” and other costs included €4,892 for food at the main party and €700 for a classical music quartet. A separate dinner for senior staff costs €1,840.

“Do you not think that’s a bit much for the tax payer to be expected to pay,” Mr MacSharry asked Mr Ó Foghlú.

The secretary general said it would not be normal for the department or its agencies to throw retirement parties for staff but “there would be a recognition that when a senior leader is retiring after a number of years”. Dr Murphy served as CIT president for some 13 years.

“It’s not something we have a guideline on but I would think it’s something that’s appropriate to be celebrated. It’s important for the institution in question to recognise the achievements of a leader over a period of time,” Mr Ó Foghlú said.

‘Divvy up’

He said he had attended the main party but that he was not aware of its cost. Asked if €13,000 was an appropriate amount to spend on a party, he replied that it would “depend on the circumstances”.

“Is it the taxpayer who should be expected to divvy up the money or should the invitees be quite reasonably asked if they’d like to contribute?” Mr MacSharry asked.

“There can be different practices,” Mr Ó Foghlú replied.

Mr MacSharry said that if someone retires in the Oireachtas an envelope is passed around and people contribute money if they want. He said Oireachtas members will be paying €50 each for their own Christmas party this year.

He suggested that the department issue a circular on the practice.

Mr Ó Foghlú replied that there are circulars in operation relating to staff meals.

It is not the first time spending at CIT has been in the spotlight at the PAC this year. In July CIT promised to review the way it purchases art after it emerged it had spent €20,000 on portraits of Dr Murphy and the former chair of its governing body Dr Paddy Caffrey.

The college - which is carrying a €1 million deficit - spent a further €2,214 on framing. A PAC hearing in July was told that portraits of two previous holders of these offices were completed by a student at the college for a fee in the region of €500.

In a statement, the Higher Education Authority said it “shares the concern expressed at the Public Accounts Committee today about the level of expenditure incurred and that the outgoing president signed off on some of this expenditure”.

It said it was following up with CIT “to seek a full explanation in this regard.”