Broadband report: Naughten meetings did not influence tender process
Bruton says by stepping aside Naughten ‘removed any apparent bias from process’
Report examined whether contacts between former minister Denis Naughten and David McCourt undermined the broadband tender process. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times
The former minister for communications Denis Naughten did not influence, or seek to influence, the tender process of the national broadband plan during meetings with the sole remaining bidder, a report published on Tuesday has found.
Minister for Communications Richard Bruton told reporters after the report was published Mr Naughten “did not have the opportunity to influence in any way or to favour in any way the outcome”.
Mr Bruton, however, conceded the meetings between Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt “gave rise to concern.”
He said by stepping aside, Mr Naughten had “removed any apparent bias from the process.”
In his report Mr Smyth examined communications between Mr Naughten and the American businessman David McCourt heading up the Granahan McCourt consortium which is the sole remaining bidder for the plan which some estimates have said will cost up to €3 billion.
The Roscommon TD resigned amid controversy over meetings he held with Mr McCourt.
Mr Bruton also said the findings in the report meant the project could proceed.
The report was unable to establish conclusively whether the tender had been discussed by Mr McCourt and Mr Naughten at their meetings, but because the minister was not in a position to influence any decision, he could not have undermined the process.
“Denis Naughten was not privy to any information that could have influenced the outcome in favour of McCourt, he didn’t make decision in favour of McCourt, he wasn’t in a position to influence either the tender details or the evaluation,” Mr Bruton said.
He said the report did acknowledge the meetings gave “cause for concern” but any questions about the process had been removed by Mr Naughten’s resignation.
“Denis Naughten did the right thing . . . and the Taoiseach was correct,” Mr Bruton said.
The Cabinet considered the report from independent auditor Peter Smyth into the tender process for the State’s rural broadband scheme at its meeting on Tuesday morning, before it was published.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ordered the report from Mr Smyth following Mr Naughten’s resignation last month to assess whether the tender process for the national broadband plan rollout had been compromised.
Mr Naughten wrote that he “welcomed” the findings of the report, not only for “himself” but for the 1.2 million people that were waiting to be connected to high-speed broadband.
“My sole objective throughout this process, during my time as Minister, was to deliver much promised broadband to rural Ireland,” Mr Naughten said.
“I hope that once this procurement process has been completed that the remaining homes, farms and businesses will get access to this technology.
“I urge colleagues not to succumb to those who want to make a political issue of the NBP for their own ends and not that of the Country as a whole.”
The report found Mr Naughten did not influence or seek to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt Capital, or otherwise.
“The fact that the former minister met Mr McCourt or representatives of the other bidders outside the process is not in and of itself a basis for the finding that the procurement process has been tainted,” the report found.
“I am satisfied that neither the former minister nor Mr McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise,” Mr Smyth said in the report.
“I also believe that the decision of the former minister to resign, thereby removing himself from the process insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt”.
Mr Smyth found the absence of written minutes or notes for a number of meetings between Mr McCourt and the minister meant he had to rely on statements from Mr Naughten, Mr McCourt and others for verifying what was discussed at the meetings.
“I cannot unequivocally state that State-led intervention under the NBP was not discussed at the meetings between the former minister and Mr McCourt outside the procurement process.”
The report found the communications protocol for the procurement process “does not expressly prohibit engagements between the bidders (or individual members of a bidding consortium) and the Department”, which is state would have been “impracticable in the context of the Department’s ongoing work outside the procurement process”.