Media 'distorting' expenses issue

 

Minister for Arts, Tourism and Sport Martin Cullen has strongly criticised the media coverage of the expenses controversy surrounding Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue.

Mr Cullen claimed today that many of the facts regarding Mr O'Donoghue’s expenses had been presented in an "extremely distorted" fashion.

On Tuesday, Mr O'Donoghue announced his decision to resign his post next week following months of media reports regarding the high level of expenses he incurred as the former minister for arts, sports and tourism.

Speaking at the launch of a report by the Tourism Renewal Group at Government Buildings today, Mr Cullen said while there had been failures regarding expenses, he did not accept “the denigration of decent people who had served for a long period of time”.

“Anybody that goes abroad for this country works extremely hard, and it is unfortunate that it is presented all the time as some kind of junket.”

Mr Cullen said he would much prefer to be at home with his family on St Patrick’s Day rather than attending 24 functions in 48 hours as he did last year.

He said he would support making the system of expenses more transparent and that his Cabinet colleagues had nothing to hide from such a move.

"I certainly am not aware of any issue that would be bothering any minister, and certainly in my case I've nothing worrying me in that regard," Mr Cullen said.

"I think what's probably frustrating for some of us is, and I say this openly and honestly, is the way that it's presented in the media can at times be extremely distorted, and present what are purported to be facts in an incorrect manner, and I think it's very unfair to the individuals concerned."

Asked if he thought Mr O’Donoghue had been treated unfairly, Mr Cullen said the way the controversy over his expenses had been forced to a conclusion had been “peremptory”.

Referring to Mr O’Donoghue’s now infamous €400 limousine journey between two terminals in Heathrow airport, Mr Cullen said: “Often there are times, you cannot make a second flight, when you’re actually transiting…if you have to come out and go to the terminal. I’m not excusing it but there are often reasons.”

Earlier today Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan said reforming the current Oireachtas expenses system would not help solve the financial crisis facing the country.

Mr Lenihan said Ireland is facing “a very serious fiscal crisis” and "the abolition of Oireachtas expenses wouldn’t solve that crisis in any degree".

While he admitted the issue of TD expenses was important he said people need to focus “on the real issues” facing the country.

“We have to have trust and transparency in relation to them, that will be done and it will be done in a short time frame,” Mr Lenihan said.

Today's Irish Timesrevealed that the auditor charged with overseeing the regime of expenses and allowances for TDs and Senators has complained in a strongly worded resignation letter that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has ignored his proposals for reform and left him with no option but to resign.

Tom O'Higgins, the chairman of the audit committee of the commission, attended his last meeting on Tuesday to explain that he felt obliged to resign the position during the summer because of the refusal of the politicians to reform their expenses and allowances regime. Coincidentally, Mr O’Higgins attended his last audit committee meeting on the day commission chairman and Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue decided to step down.

In his letter to Kieran Coughlan, secretary general of the commission, Mr O'Higgins expressed disappointment that some of the concerns and reservations he had raised about members'; allowances and the reimbursement of expenses without an adequate vouching scheme had not been accepted by the commission.

"This apparent lack of interest in my views appeared to me to be reinforced by the commission's decision, earlier this year, to recommend to the Minister of Finance the introduction of 'a monthly all-in standardised parliamentary allowance' without first sending it to the audit committee for comment.

"In my experience, as chairman of four other departmental or State-sector bodies' audit committees, this was quite unprecedented," said Mr O'Higgins in his letter, disclosed to The Irish Timesfollowing a Freedom of Information request.