The then minister’s trip to New York earlier this year has come under scrutiny, more so with the release of redacted WhatsApp comments, writes Daniel McConnell.
On the evening of Saturday, July 14, 2018, then communications minister Denis Naughten and his press adviser, private secretary, and departmental officials were getting ready to travel to New York City early the following morning.
Naughten was due to appear at the United Nations on climate issues but during his stay in Manhattan, he would hold a meeting with David McCourt, head of Granahan McCourt, the sole remaining consortium in the running for the National Broadband Plan tender.
The State-subsidised contract is likely to be worth in excess of €500m to the winning bidder.
The revelation of the McCourt meeting ultimately set in train events which led to the minister’s shock resignation last month.
That Saturday night, his private secretary, Seana McGearty, set up a WhatsApp group entitled: “Team Naughten #1” and at 10.17pm sent a message to the group.
“Team Naughten....t2, 7.30am one checked bag & you can check yourself in with your passport...you don’t need me this time,” she said.
Naughten asked did he need to do anything but was told that McGearty had his passport, explaining that her message was meant for the others in the group.
At about 7.30am the next day, Sunday, July 15, the team began arriving at Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport to catch the flight to the US.
Naughten’s press adviser, Suzie Coogan, told the group: “I’m so tired [sleepy emoji] In a taxi.. see you beyond security.”
Naughten a short while later wrote: “Just checking in. We are heading to 51’s & Green lounge. See you there.”
Once the party landed in New York, the WhatApp messages, which were released to Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy under the Freedom of Information Act, begin flowing again.
Settled in the Fitzpatrick Hotel in Manhattan, Naughten asked: “What’s the ETA in lobby?”
McGearty responds by saying: “I’m here already, we going on the boat??”
Naughten responds simply: “Yes. Boat.”
The private secretary asks: “Are all of you changing or going as is?”
Naughten says: “Give me 5, Where are you Suzie”.
“Sorry, on the way down.”
The following day, Monday, July 16, Naughten and McCourt met.
Naughten, ahead of his resignation as communications minister on October 11, defended his decision to accept an invitation to the New York dinner hosted by McCourt.
According to the FoI records released, Naughten and Coogan left their hotel at about 7.15pm New York time to meet McCourt.
“On way now, so sorry,” Coogan wrote in the WhatsApp group.
“Yep, pull the other one,” replied Naughten.
Then McGearty informs those travelling to the dinner that McCourt was awaiting their arrival.
“David already there & said ask for him at door,” she said.
These are the only records relating to the meeting released.
The department said all records of the WhatsApp messages on the day of the McCourt meeting, regarding the McCourt meeting, were released.
It said messages in the records that were redacted by the deciding officer relate to personal information.
From the minutes of the meeting between the two men, we know McCourt, whose firm was bidding for a major Government contract at the time, addressed a number of issues raised by the department during the procurement process.
Among the issues raised, according to the note, included the need for a “permanent, Irish-based leadership position within the Enet-led consortium” and a “streamlined decision-making process within the consortium”.
McCourt said the leadership position was “being addressed” and that an individual had been selected for the role.
Regarding the decision-making process, “provision for majority rather than unanimous decision making is now in place”, according to the minutes of the meeting.
The importance of the August 15 deadline and the need for necessary financing to be in place at that time was also raised.
The minutes, released by the department, noted that this deadline would be met.
McCourt also addressed “the need for any changes in the make-up of the consortium to be avoided or, if necessary, to be kept to a minimum”.
This point was “understood by the consortium” which had been advised by law firm Arthur Cox, that “as long as the consortium’s ‘lead bidder’ remains unchanged, such changes should not necessitate delays”, state the notes.
Naughten later said he was informed during the dinner of changes to the consortium, in particular, the exit of UK utility firm SSE.
Naughten insisted the first he knew of the final composition of the consortium, which includes Denis O’Brien’s Actavo, was when he read it in a newspaper.
On Tuesday, July 17, the messages within the WhatsApp group begin flowing once again but no mention of the McCourt meeting is included.
One person mentioned the events of the day: “By god this is the most boring lunch that I’ve ever attended. Eating for Ireland! (Meal even cold to top it all off!!).”
Jean Andrews responded: “Ah no. Get out of there.”
Catherine Murphy, who sought the information through FoI, said it was only through her persistence that the thread of messages, many of which are punctuated with emoji, were released.
“In recent months I submitted a large volume of different and very specific freedom of information requests on various aspects of the former minister’s conduct throughout the National Broadband Plan process,” she said.
“With the exception of a handful, they have all either been declined, sent back for rewording, or have asked for what are already narrow timeframes to be narrowed further.
"Every obstacle in the FoI Act has been put in front of me regarding getting access to basic information, such as the former minister and his official’s interactions with David McCourt, Granahan McCourt, and Enet.”
In declining to grant access to some of the conversation, Murphy was told that “pictures on the WhatsApp messages [such as] refreshments, individuals, and minors” had been removed.
Murphy said she has now been left with more questions than answers.
“I am also anxious to understand if I have been left short of screenshots of the group on the day in question,” she said.