Opposition: Broadband bid review a whitewash

Opposition: Broadband bid review a whitewash

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Daniel McConnell, and Juno McEnroe

The Government-backed investigation into the Denis Naughten broadband lobbying crisis has been labelled a whitewash after it cleared him of wrongdoing despite having to “rely” on his own word to draw the conclusion.

Opposition parties demanded a special Dáil debate next Tuesday after the review said Mr Naughten’s repeated meetings with the only bidder still seeking the €3bn broadband plan tender did not influence the procurement process.

In a 50-page report published after a week of delays, independent auditor Peter Smyth found that the former communications minister meetings with Granahan McCourt chairman David McCourt should not derail the crucial broadband plan.

The report found:

  • Mr Naughten’s 18 meetings, nine phone calls, and five dinners with Mr McCourt did not influence the bidding process;
  • This is because Mr Naughten did not have access to “sensitive” information which meant he could not “influence” the tendering process even if he wanted to do so;
  • Meeting “bidders outside the process is not in and of itself a basis for the finding that the procurement process has been tainted”;
  • Mr Naughten’s decision to resign last month “insulates” the broadband plan from any suggestion of unfair influence because he is no longer involved in the process.

However, the report has also acknowledged the clear findings are partially based on Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt’s own word on what was discussed at the meetings, saying: “Due to the limitations of the review process... I am reliant on statements of Mr Naughten, Mr McCourt and other parties for verification of the purpose and contents of those meetings.”

The Government jumped on the report to vindicate Mr Naughten yesterday, with Communications Minister Richard Bruton and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe saying no wrongdoing has been found.

However, the document has been heavily criticised by the Opposition.

Demanding a special Dáil debate next Tuesday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the findings do not “stack up”, Labour’s Brendan Howlin that it would be “reckless” to push ahead, and Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said questions remain unanswered.

In his first public comments since he was forced to resign last month, Mr Naughten yesterday said he has been vindicated.

Noting the report said he “did not influence or seek to influence” the tender process”, he urged the Government to push ahead with the “not tainted” high-speed broadband roll-out plan.

However, a spokesperson for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he “considers it a partial or qualified vindication”.

Asked if Mr Naughten could return to Cabinet, he said: “There is no vacancy.”

This story was amended on Wednesday, November 28.

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