Taoiseach defends Minister meeting key bidder for €500m contract
Leo Varadkar rejects Micheál Martin claim that Denis Naughten ‘contaminated’ bid for rural broadband contract
Denis Naughten confirmed he made the booking for lunch at Leinster House for David McCourt and his family but did not meet Mr McCourt, on the day. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The Taoiseach has dismissed claims by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that Minister for Communications Denis Naughten “contaminated” the rural broadband tendering process by meetinga key member of last remaining consortium bidding for the €500 million contract.
Leo Varadkar defended Mr Naughten’s meeting in New York in July with US businessman David McCourt and said it was acceptable “provided it conferred no advantage on Mr McCourt”.
Earlier Mr Naughten told the Dáil he did not attend a lunch in Leinster House on April 18th with Mr McCourt. He said Mr McCourt, founder and chairman of Granahan McCourt, and his family came into the house for lunch that day to celebrate a birthday.
He was questioned by Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley, his party colleague James Browne, Sinn Féin communications spokesman Brian Stanley and Solidarity TD Paul Murphy on this.
Mr Naughten said the booking for the lunch was made under his name but “I did not speak with David McCourt either in person, on the phone or any other way that day or on subsequent days in relation to that”.
Mr Martin later raised the issue of the New York meeting in July and said meetings like this had led in the past to the establishment of tribunals but the Taoiseach rounded on him and accused the Fianna Fail leader of having a history of making allegations against ministers.
He said Mr Martin had made false allegations against him and Minister for Health Simon Harris in relation to the CervicalCheck controversy but had refused to withdraw his claims when proved wrong by the Scally inquiry. “This is a pattern by you, unfortunately not a good one.”
The Fianna Fáil leader said it was significant that at the New York meeting, officials handling the bid for the department were not in attendance.
The Taoiseach said the contract would be one of the biggest investments in rural Ireland providing high speed broadband to more than 500,000 homes and businesses.
He said the meeting in July in New York was at a dinner hosted by the McCourt family. Mr McCourt had been a significant investor in Ireland for many years, employing hundreds of people.
The Taoiseach said the tender was not discussed and it was a “short discussion of an administrative nature”.
Mr Martin insisted the meeting was not of an administrative nature and the minutes showed four issues were discussed including changes in the make-up of the consortium. “This is the meat, this is the goddamn meat of the bid,” he said.
“A Minister should not have met a key bidder in the context of a massive project and a State contract with hundreds of millions of euro at stake”.
Decision makers such as Mr Naughten “are normally and properly insulated from lobbying and any attempt to influence them during a tendering process”, Mr Martin said.
The Cork South-Central TD said that at this stage a decision still had to be taken on whether to accept the remaining bid.
Claiming “it is beyond question that the bid is contaminated”, Mr Martin added: “He was canvassing, he was lobbying and canvassing disqualifies.”
The Taoiseach said that “there is a single bidder so competition is not a factor here” and the meeting on July 16th took place before the evaluation of the bid had started.
Accusing Mr Martin of having a history of making allegations against ministers, the Taoiseach asked if he was really saying that over a two or three year period as Minister Mr Naughten should not meet the chief executives of Eir or Airtricity or the chairs of RTÉ or TG4 when decisions were made about the funding of those bodies.
The National Broadband Plan - the Government’s longstanding plan to address the lack of broadband coverage in rural Ireland - was first announced in 2012. The Government’s procurement process, which is ongoing, has been dogged by controversy. Not only have the pre-race favourites - Eir and ESB-Vodafone joint venture Siro - dropped out but the last remaining consortium keeps changing.