Ministers criticise Naughten’s handling of broadband controversy

‘Drip feed of information’ about meetings with lead broadband bidder ‘not helpful’

Denis Naughten, Minister for Communications, announcing details of the National Broadband Plan at Government Buildings last year. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Denis Naughten, Minister for Communications, announcing details of the National Broadband Plan at Government Buildings last year. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Ministers have expressed concern about Minister for Communications Denis Naughten’s handling of controversy over meetings he held with the lead bidder for the Government’s National Broadband Plan.

One Cabinet member said the “drip feed of information” on meetings between Mr Naughten and David McCourt, chairman of Granahan McCourt, was “not helpful”.

Another said: “If he broke the rules, he’s in trouble.” The issue was described as the “second fool’s pardon he’s looking for”, a reference to a controversy earlier this year over contact between Mr Naughten and a lobbyist working for Independent News and Media.

Mr Naughten’s spokeswoman, however, pointed to comments from an official heading up the broadband procurement process who said contacts with Mr McCourt had “no bearing”.

Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said Mr Naughten should acknowledge the “inappropriateness” of the meetings.

The Minister, he added, should answer further Dáil questions on the issue but said the issue was “bigger and wider” than the latest controversy, adding the broadband process was “fatally flawed”.

Mr Naughten admitted he met Mr McCourt on two separate occasions and “facilitated” a lunch in the Dáil for him while the procurement process was ongoing. The Minister also paid for the €37 lunch through a direct debit Oireachtas system, which deducts payments from salaries, his spokeswoman said.

Dinner invitation

Mr Naughten was already in hot water for accepting a dinner invitation from Mr McCourt in New York in July, which he attended with several senior officials from his department.

Mr McCourt’s company is in line to secure one of the biggest public contracts ever awarded by the State, worth in excess of €500 million, should it succeed in winning the tender.

When asked at a post-budget briefing on Wednesday if he had met Mr McCourt on any other occasion during the procurement process, Mr Naughten initially said he didn’t recall.

However, after being passed a handwritten note by a senior department official, Mr Naughten corrected his initial statement to say that he had attended a meeting in Dublin with Mr McCourt and the secretary general and the assistant secretary general of the Department of Communications in June.