Kildare and Wicklow ETB to review all rental leases

‘Serious lapses’ in State body’s financial practices severely criticised in C&AG report

Former chief executive Seán Ashe, who failed to declare ties to family members with interests in two companies that received contracts from the ETB, an audit found. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Former chief executive Seán Ashe, who failed to declare ties to family members with interests in two companies that received contracts from the ETB, an audit found. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board (ETB), which is at the centre of a controversy over how taxpayer funds were spent, is reviewing all its rental leases to ensure value for money, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Officials from the State-run ETB and the Department of Education appeared before the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee on Thursday.

A litany of issues about the organisation were raised in an Department of Education investigation, and a recent Comptroller and Auditor General report.

The audit found the ETB repeatedly broke public contract rules and indulged in “excessive” spending on five-star hotels.

Its then chief executive, Seán Ashe, also failed to declare ties to family members with interests in two companies that received contracts from the ETB, the audit found.

The report has since been referred to the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau.

Rental leases for office and teaching space was a “very significant area of expenditure”, its new chief executive, Dr Deirdre Keyes, told the committee. Dr Keyes said a review of all the ETB’s leases would be presented at its next meeting, by the organisation’s finance committee.

Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy said concerns arose during a routine audit of the body’s 2015 financial accounts.

The concerns led the State auditor to prepare a supplementary report into the financial issues, a move that would be “very unusual,” he told the committee.

Surprised and shocked

When concerning financial practices were brought to the chair and vice-chair of the ETB’s board, Mr McCarthy said they were both “surprised and shocked” to learn the information.

Mr McCarthy said in his opinion ETB boards were “heavily dependent” on the executives they were supposed to provide oversight to, and needed more “operational independence”.

The C&AG audit found 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.

Fine Gael committee member Peter Burke said a luxury hotel trip costing €10,000 was something “I thought would have been stamped out decades ago”.

Mr McCarthy said the auditors had not been provided with any breakdown on the total bill, or details of how many rooms were booked, or meals eaten. Mr Burke said the lack of checks on past expenditure meant known instances of excessive spending at the State body “may just be the tip of the iceberg.”

Dr Keyes said the body had major regrets about the “serious lapses” in financial and governance controls. The ETB has “set about to build a robust culture of corporate governance”, she said.

Department secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú said issues uncovered at the ETB were concerning. “We haven’t seen anything that would cause concerns elsewhere in the ETB sector, but that doesn’t mean we can take absolute assurance from that,” he said.