Racing body chairman apologises for how executive was reappointed

Joe Keeling tells Oireachtas committee he did not focus for one minute on the legalities

The chairman of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) has apologised for the process by which it lengthened the term of its chief executive in defiance of Government guidelines.

Joe Keeling told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture he had focused on Brian Kavanagh as the best man for the job, "I did not focus for one minute on the legalities".

Mr Keeling, who also heads the Keeling’s food group, appeared before the committee with other members of the HRI board to answer questions about the recent reappointment of Mr Kavanagh, who has held the role since 2001.

Controversy erupted earlier this year when it emerged that Mr Kavanagh would be given an exemption to remain in the position for a further five years, despite considerably outlasting the seven-year term recommended in current Government guidelines.

Mr Keeling said: “At the outset, I would like to apologise for how the appointment process was conducted, it shouldn’t have happened and I take personal responsibility for this.”

Mr Keeling said Mr Kavanagh “had competed for [the role] twice and he had won easily, and I thought it would have been a waste of money to do it a third time”.

Asked later by Fianna Fáil’s Charlie McConalogue whether he accepted things should have been done differently, however, Mr Keeling replied: “I don’t think so, I would always have acted in the best interests of HRI”.

Indefinite duration

Under scrutiny from Fine Gael's Michael D'Arcy and Labour's Willie Penrose, members of the HRI board admitted there was a potential, given his length of service, that Mr Kavanagh could have, and may still technically have the capability to, enter into contract of indefinite duration (CID) status.

Mr Keeling was unable to immediately assure the board that this possibility has been removed entirely, but said the chief executive had already signed an agreement to step aside in 2021 and that he believed this would be honoured.

Admitting that neither he nor the board may have had the power to remove Mr Kavanagh if an open recruitment competition was run because of the CID situation, Mr Keeling said he felt confident he could persuade the incumbent to step aside if that was the desired outcome.

Mr Penrose described the sequence of events from 2009, when Mr Kavanagh was again ratified by the HRI board to commence another seven-year term, as a “cockup”.

Asked if he received formal backing from the board before writing to the government expressing his support for reappointing Mr Kavanagh in December 2014, Mr Keeling admitted it was his own personal stance and felt that he had the “informal” backing of the board.

“Not all letters we write are perfect, I’m sorry for the mistakes I made,” he told the meeting.

Commenting on the lack of formal backing, Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny: “I find it quite an arrogant way of explaining this position.

“It seems all a very flippant way of dealing with this situation,” he added, drawing attention to Mr Kavanagh’s annual remuneration package worth almost €250,000.

HRI board member Meta Osborne said the renewal of Mr Kavanagh's contract was initially meant to be ratified by the organisation's two-person remuneration committee, comprising herself and one other board member.

She said she felt “uncomfortable” with the situation, and so agitated for a third member to be added which eventually happened and renewal was recommended.

Fellow board member John Powell told the committee he objected to Mr Kavanagh's reappointment at a HRI meeting in July as he believed such a move would run counter to good corporate governance.

“This should never have been dealt with as an 11th-hour issue,” he said. Mr Powell then voted in favour of retaining the chief executive at an EGM last month.

Members of the HRI board gave assurances that selection processes would follow more robust procedures in future, that lessons had been learned, and agreed that a review of corporate governance may be warranted for the organisation in light of recent affairs.

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