Templemore auditor points to tangled web of financial indiscretions

Renting land Garda college did not own and 50 bank accounts among ‘bizarre practices’

"The ugly truth tends to recur if it is not properly root-caused and appropriate lessons genuinely learned," John Barrett, head of human resources at An Garda Síochána wrote to a senior colleague nearly two years ago.

He could have been discussing any of the controversies that have engulfed the Garda recently – the treatment of whistleblowers, the deletion of penalty points, the exaggeration of breath tests, or wrongful convictions of motorists.

Instead, however, Barrett's criticism referred specifically to financial irregularities at the Garda college in Templemore, Co Tipperary, where recruits train to become full members of the force.

Last month, the Garda’s own internal audit unit released the findings of their investigation into financial governance at the college, which found a litany of failings.

Remarkably, the college had been renting out land which it did not own; it was running 50 bank accounts when there should only have been one; and public money had been spent by it fitting-out privately-owned shops.

The practices, operated in plain sight, were known to senior management for decades yet they never impeded the promotion of any of those involved, according to Barrett.

"There is no discretion around accounting rules. They are not a la carte and the bizarre practices that you have uncovered in your very brief audit are simply not the kind of matters that should be ignored, covered over or explained away. These practices operated in plain sight for years," he told Niall Kelly, the Garda's head of audit based in Capel Street, Dublin, in a lengthy letter dated October 2016.

“They were known to the Finance Directorate and others in senior management. They were not just tolerated, but protected from scrutiny” he wrote.

Since the audit report was released in March this year, focus has shifted to how long the arrangements had been in place, who knew what, and what was done to rectify them.

It is these questions which have shifted the spotlight to Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and raised further questions about her ability to lead the force.

O'Sullivan's knowledge of the financial irregularities at Templemore was publicly undermined by Barrett at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee last week.

Pressure escalated

However, Barrett has escalated the pressure on the commissioner by submitting a 122-page document to the PAC’s members poking holes in Ms O’Sullivan’s account.

Beginning with accounts from Wednesday, June 17th, 2015, Barrett’s dossier is meticulous in detail, including the arrival times, departure times and descriptions of the body language of those involved, as well as his own personal musings.

Around that time, he attended a staff meeting with chief administration officer Cyril Dunne and other colleagues, where he told those present that he had some concerns around financial control and governance at Templemore.

Barrett alleges that the executive director of finance and services Michael Culhane told him it would be best if these issues were kept out of the reach of the internal audit team – and away from the eyes of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The matters raised seemed to come as a surprise to Dunne, who sits on the audit committee. That same day, Barrett was contacted by another man, Barry McGee, who had completed an audit in 2008 on the same issues.

McGee offered Barrett a copy of his findings and agreed to send one to Dunne too. The following day Barrett and Dunne spoke, and Dunne confirmed he did not have a copy of the inquiry.

Later that day Supt Pat McCabe approached Barrett in his office in Templemore. “You have been doing a bit of digging,” McCabe reportedly said.

Barrett explained he was surprised at what he had uncovered and the depths of the problem. Following the conversation with McCabe, Barrett contacted Dunne.

Dunne confirmed that he had received the McGee report, and though he said he had not read it, he believed there was “a nasty smell of the answers”.

The following weekend Barrett spent hours trawling through McGee’s report. He learned that the audit committee had no idea what was unfolding at the college.

Catering enterprise

His concerns centred on the restaurant in the college, which employed 30 people, was operating as a private catering enterprise but was being run by the director of training and the college administrator.

Profits from the operation were being administrated by a separate body and all funds were out of the direction and control of State employees, his report shared with the Oireachtas committee said.

Large sums were being invested in the operation, but he had no evidence of there being appropriate accounting mechanisms in place.

He estimated that since 2004, the amount of money involved was in excess of €12 million – but it did not appear in any cash sales from the college’s shop, restaurant or laundry.

It was at this point Barrett believed the issues should be brought to the attention of Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, under Section 41 of the Garda Síochána Act. He vowed to bring the issue to the attention of his superiors.

On June 22nd, he contacted the head of legal affairs Ken Ruane and asked for his advice. The pair discussed the issue and Ruane agreed to deal with the matters as best he could.

The following day McCabe got back in touch to advise Barrett he would give him a copy of a report carried out in 2010 – the previous report Barrett had seen was from 2008. McCabe implied that the Department of Justice had been aware of the issues.

Detailed chronology

On June 28th, he produced a detailed chronology marked “confidential” , where he outlined his “deep and ongoing concerns around aspects of the ongoing and historic management and administration” of Templemore.

“There is now no doubt in my mind that very substantial irregularities exist in the administration, direction, inter-entity relationships and dependencies operating within the Garda college”, he wrote.

It was July 6th when Barrett submitted a report to Dunne. He outlined how the restaurant, the laundry, the bar, the shop operated as private entities but were being run by members of the Garda.

Civil servants were working in the college shop; buildings were fitted and provided by the Office of Public Works despite being independent enterprises. Profits and revenue were being kept separate and accounts before 2007 were lost, he said in his report.

Senior members of the college management were directors of Sports Field Company Ltd. It was set up to help procure facilities for the college and owned land beside the college.

They leased land to Templemore golf course, which remained open for business despite paying any licence fees. The list appeared to be endless. A crucial intervention was made a few weeks later. Ken Ruane, the head of legal affairs, wrote to the commissioner urging Ms O’Sullivan to make the Minister for Justice aware of the issues.

Ruane cited her legal obligations under Section 41 of the Garda Act. We now know O’Sullivan did not feel compelled to inform the Government of the issues for a further 15 months.

Three days after Ruane sent this letter, Barrett and O'Sullivan met in a room close to the reception area at Templemore college. O'Sullivan was joined by Assistant Commissioner John Twomey, Assistant Commissioner Donal Ó Cualáin and Cyril Dunne.

‘Brief exchange’

Barrett says the meeting began at 5.30pm, lasted over two hours, and was ongoing when he left at 7.37pm. O’Sullivan maintains the encounter was “a brief exchange” over a cup of tea.

Barrett kept minutes of the meeting. He says he mentioned figures, he referenced practices in the restaurants; he spoke about bank accounts. He was urged to be “very careful”.

Regardless of how long the meeting took, O’Sullivan acted. She established a steering group the following day.

Included in that group were senior Garda officials and Department of Justice figures – but not the Garda’s own head of internal audit, Niall Kelly.

Eight months later, Kelly’s office was appointed to investigate the allegations. A further seven months later the department was informed of the issues.

In the midst of this complex web, Barrett had written to the internal audit team outlining how large sums of money had been managed and moved out of the purview of the normal structures of the Garda.

Revenue of tens of thousands of individual cash transactions from the shop, laundry, bars and restaurants and accommodation had been lodged to bank accounts and managed by Garda personnel. Forty-two bank accounts were in operation at the time.

Lands owned by the college were rented to local farmers. No record was kept and it is not known if any money was collected.

The full scale of the problem is not yet known. The audit released is still an interim report with no blame laid and no cause identified.