Paschal Donohoe’s position would likely only come under threat in two scenarios. The first is if the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) conducts an inquiry and is severely critical of the disclosure made by him and his team in 2016. The second – and this would be far more serious – is if more instances of undocumented expenses or omissions emerge.
His Dublin Central constituency is the least affluent in the State, and in advance of the election was reduced from a four- to a three-seater as boundaries changed. The challenge was compounded by the fact that the parts of Dublin Central near his strongholds of the Navan Road and Drumcondra were carved off to other constituencies.
Donohoe survived the squeeze, getting elected on the last count, but now, almost seven years later, that campaign is being revisited due to discrepancies having arisen over his election expenses. The upshot could put a very different gloss on Donohoe’s victory and, indeed, could have implications for his status and career.
The facts are undisputed. Michael Stone, a friend of Donohoe and chief executive of the Designer Group, offered to put posters up on lamp-posts. Six men drove around the constituency in a company van and erected (and later took down) posters for the Fine Gael TD.
There are strict rules around election spending laid out in the Electoral Acts. The maximum donation from an individual to a candidate is €1,000 (and €2,500 to a political party). From a corporation the maximum is €200. Any donation from an individual worth more than €600 must be declared. It’s not just cash. If somebody offers a free supply of services without payment that has to go down as an expense. The amount recorded is the sum the candidate would have paid for that service if it were a commercial transaction.
When Donohoe and his election agent furnished the election expenses statement there was no reference to Stone’s contribution. That was the first omission or failure.
Donohoe has said he was aware in 2017 of the use of the van from Stone’s company (costing €140) but not of its expense. Speaking at a hastily-convened press conference on Sunday, the Minister said he should have revised his statement when he became aware of it. He said it was an “oversight” on his part that he did not inquire about the cost of the van.
After that the matter rested until November of last year, when a journalist submitted a series of questions to Donohoe in relation to the contribution from Stone. There were visual records showing the six men doing the postering work.
Donohoe’s response in November was that there had been no breach of the rules as any contribution made by Stone was below the threshold for declaration. This was the second failure or omission. He was already aware that the van was used but not the cost. Moreover, Donohoe did not contact Stone to ask about the status of the six men who carried out the work – if they were volunteers or if they were paid.
So what changed between November and now?
A complaint was lodged to Sipo, which compelled a wider investigation on Donohoe’s part into the 2016 campaign expenses. He contacted Stone and was told the men were paid for their work, a total of €1,100 for four nights spent erecting and removing posters. Removing the posters happened after the election so the amount that mattered was what was spent up to polling day. A sum of €917.
Donohoe’s explanation is that there were two donations, not one. One was a corporate donation of the van (€140), which was below the €200 limit, and did not have to be declared. The other was the €917, which he said was an individual donation from Stone, which was below the limit for an individual. Donohoe has admitted that this second donation, while perfectly legitimate, should have been declared.
His press conference was held to respond quickly and not let allegations or rumours hang in the air, creating the kind of bubbling-up crisis that did for Robert Troy.
[ Paschal Donohoe apologises over undeclared election expenses ]
The matter is acutely embarrassing for Donohoe, who has traded on an image of propriety as a Minister. Moreover, he is now responsible for public reform, with overarching responsibility for Sipo and all the ethics and electoral legislation with which politicians must comply. He is the Minister for Crossing the Ts and Dotting the Is. For him to fall down in this regard does not look good.
Is it more than just embarrassing? There were clear failures of compliance by him on two occasions. The election expenses statement he furnished was inaccurate and showed tardiness in compiling the figures and disclosing everything. He said that he believes they were “accurate and true” at the time, but that is an insufficient excuse in relation to complying with a very specific statutory requirement.
This will damage Donohoe, especially because of his status and the roles he has held since 2016, in Ireland and on the Eurogroup. On a practical level he will have to recuse himself as Minister from any policy area that touches on ethics while the Sipo process is ongoing.
Could this disclosure have the potential to force Donohoe out of office? At this juncture that does not look likely. He will certainly come under considerable political pressure to make the fullest possible statement before the Dáil this week. Given that he was quick to speak to the media at the weekend, that is very likely to happen.
His position would likely only come under threat in two scenarios – if Sipo is severely critical of the disclosure made by him and his team in 2016, or if more instances of undocumented expenses or omissions emerge.