High-fliers at Fás are brought down to earth

 

ANALYSIS:Public reaction to the State body's excesses has been one of dismay followed by outrage

IN BROAD terms, the problem at the €1 billion per year agency Fás already seems clear - at the top level of the organisation, some people appear to have a questionable attitude towards the spending of taxpayers' money.

The Dáil Public Accounts Committee (Pac) inquiry into the training authority Fás is continuing and Auditor and Comptroller General John Buckley is likely in time to initiate his own inquiry. However, on Monday the director general of Fás, Rody Molloy, performed disastrously on RTÉ radio's Today with Pat Kennyshow when he tried to defend disclosures about expenditure by himself and others on trips to Florida.

Despite mounting pressure on Molloy, Taoiseach Brian Cowen spoke out in his defence on Monday: "I have every confidence in him," Cowen told reporters.

Molloy is from Birr, Co Offaly, and last year Fás bought a site in Birr from Finbar McLaughlin, Kilshane House, Co Tipperary, for €1,537,250 as part of the plan to decentralise Fás headquarters to Birr. The Government has since stalled the plan as part of its reaction to the rapid deterioration in the public finances.

Meanwhile, the contentious expenses included a $942 (€725) game of golf for Molloy and two others at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, in January 2005, and a visit to a hair and nails salon in West Cocoa Beach, Florida, in August of that year, which cost the taxpayer $410. Who visited the salon is not known though a spokesman said it was not a Fás executive or a spouse of a Fás executive.

The training and employment authority conducts the bulk of its expenditure within Ireland but over recent years has developed a successful and admirable programme called the Science Challenge that gives Irish students and apprentices access to some of the top science institutes in the United States, including space agency Nasa, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The programme has a budget of some €1.5 million per annum. It has been developed through the establishment of relationships and good will, rather than the payment of large fees.

Supporters of the programme say the tendency of Government ministers and senior executives to fly out to Florida on a regular basis has been of significant assistance in establishing this good will. No other country has the access to Nasa that young Irish students now have, and other countries pay significant fees for the access that Irish science students now have to top class US science institutes, solely on the basis of contacts and good will.

The lavish expenditures, then, could be looked at in that context. But the problem is that the expenditure on these trips to Florida fits into an overall picture that has emerged concerning Fás.

Earlier this year details of the findings of a special internal audit inquiry into expenditure and other matters at the Corporate Affairs division in the organisation came into the public domain. The general picture contained in the report was one of reckless expenditure of significant sums, and multiple breaches of Fás procurement rules.

What then emerged was that rather than praise the work of the audit team, and appear fired up with anger at what had occurred on his watch, Molloy's reaction to the report seemed to be one of anger with the auditors.

He criticised aspects of the report strongly in a letter to Niall Saul, head of the audit committee on the Fás board. Saul referred Molloy's criticisms on to the audit team, the board committee considered the team's responses to the criticisms, and then the board's audit committee wrote to Molloy and rejected each of his criticisms in turn.

Much of this became public by way of documents released to this newspaper by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FoI). When Molloy appeared before the Public Accounts Committee last month, he appeared both defensive and angry.

"Unfortunately the internal reports released by us under the Freedom of Information Act have been sensationalised by the media and used by some with a destructive agenda towards Fás," he said.

Then at the weekend a Sunday newspaper published details of expenditures in relation to the science programme released to it by Fás. These included details of the flights, the golf game, the hair and nails salon, and a €6,962 dinner in the Merrion Hotel, Dublin, for 33 people in June 2006, understood to have been held in honour of visitors from Nasa. The tip paid by Fás, or the taxpayer, after the dinner came to €908.

These details in a way completed a picture. Reckless expenditure by a division within Fás, an odd reaction by Molloy to the exposure of this by internal audit, and then evidence of lavish use of Fás money by Molloy himself.

Documents given to this newspaper under the FoI show that more than €642,000 has been spent on flights to North America in the period since 2003. Much of this money has been spent on expensive flights for senior executives, including Molloy. He travelled to North America on 11 occasions since 2005, and was accompanied by his wife on five of these trips, all at the taxpayers' expense.

Former corporate affairs director Greg Craig travelled on 10 occasions. A flight to Houston in April 2007 by Molloy cost €8,966. Flights to Orlando for Molloy and his wife in July 2004 cost the taxpayer €9,648. Assistant director general Gerry Pyke travelled to the US on six occasions during the period, and was accompanied by his wife on two occasions.

When the issue of spouses' flights being paid for by Fás was raised with Molloy by Kenny on Tuesday, the public service executive responded: "It wasn't first-class travel, it was business-class travel. Yes, it is hellishly expensive, but any time that a spouse travelled it was because there was reason for a spouse to travel to do with the activities that were involved. One that comes to my mind . . . an [event] that involved President McAleese and her husband . . . I mean listen, all I can say to you on that is that when a spouse travels in Fás they do so at no additional expense to the organisation unless there is a very specific reason for it. There are occasions when it is appropriate. In my own case when my spouse would be with me . . . any time she has been with me there was no additional expense to Fás because I traded down my travel entitlement to allow her to travel . . . so it comes in at less expense to the organisation."

"I'm entitled to travel first class," Molloy said. Asked to confirm that he had traded down his first-class ticket for two business-class tickets, he responded: "In one instance that's what happened, yeah."