The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) is facing calls to clarify a key ruling on complaints against Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, after two members of the public ethics body challenged his defence for leaking a draft medical contract.
People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy called for a statement from the Sipo chairman, retired judge Garrett Sheehan, after The Irish Times reported on dissenting views within the commission when it decided not to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the leak.
“It’s a very poor decision by the Sipo majority,” said Mr Murphy, who was one of the three people who complained about the 2019 leak to a doctor friend of Mr Varadkar during his first term as taoiseach.
“I think it would be useful if the Sipo chairman came out to clarify their ruling. Are they saying that any future taoiseach could avoid investigation of any breaches of the ethics legislation by simply saying I did it as taoiseach? That literally is his defence.”
Sipo declined to reply to the questions raised by the TD, who submitted one of three complaints rejected by the ethics body. “If Mr Murphy wants to contact the commission we’ll respond to him. We wouldn’t be making any comment otherwise,” Sipo said.
A majority of three Sipo commissioners ruled in October against conducting a preliminary investigation into the leak affair on the basis that the body had no remit to consider either the lawfulness of Mr Varadkar’s action or the extent of the powers of the office of taoiseach.
But Freedom of Information records show how two Sipo commissioners – Seamus McCarthy, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and Ombudsman Ger Deering – dissented from the ruling. They rank among the most senior independent officials in the State and their objections are seen in political circles to have undermined Mr Varadkar’s claim that the ruling cleared him of any breach of ethics.
Mr McCarthy made a note to Sipo saying some of Mr Varadkar’s assertions “represent low-grade evidence at best” and Mr Deering said the Tánaiste’s claims that the document was no longer confidential were not supported by his own statements or public records.
Asked on Friday about the Sipo dissenters, Mr Varadkar said he respected the body’s decision and would respect it “had it gone the other way”.
Sipo’s ruling followed a Garda inquiry into the leak and the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions not to bring criminal charges in the case.
On the question of whether the dissenters weakened the argument that he was completely exonerated, the Tánaiste said the way he “transmitted” the document was inappropriate,
“I used an informal channel. I’ve apologised for that. I did so in November 2020, and was held to account by the Dáil on that matter. But we’ve had three bodies now, three inquiries. All of the inquiries are finished and none of the inquiries made any findings against me,” Mr Varadkar said.
Mr Murphy said Sipo should publish the legal advice grounding the ruling. While Sipo has said legal opinions cannot be released under the Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, Mr Murphy said it was still open to the body to release such opinions outside the FoI framework.
“It’s in the public interest because of this case but also for future cases that we know the basis [for the decision]. They can publish it. It’s private to them but they can.”