OVER years when health services were creaking, a fund controlled by a SIPTU official funded lavish overseas junkets for senior trade union officials and public servants, the Dáil public spending watchdog heard yesterday.
The chairman of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) John McGuinness expressed concern that many of the supposed visits to places like the US and Canada for training and development occurred around St Patrick’s Day.
Mr McGuinness questioned if such tours were “just jollies” because of their proximity to March 17 each year.
“Bells must have been ringing that there was something odd about these trips,” he added, describing as “flathulach” spending of €108,000 on restaurants.
However, secretary general of the Department of Health, Michael Scanlan, replied: “The purpose of the visits on the face of it looked appropriate.” He later conceded that there was “a pattern” surrounding visits on St Patrick’s Day.
Several TDs branded the SIPTU bank account as a “slush fund” where trade union officials and senior public and civil servants “cosied up” to each other.
Representatives of the HSE, and Departments of Health and the Environment maintained that nobody knew the SIPTU account was “unauthorised” as all correspondence related to the account came on official union notepaper and from SIPTU’s head office.
The PAC heard that since the controversy became public, a total of €973,177 has been refunded to the exchequer comprising €697,894 from the “unauthorised” SIPTU account and €275,283 from four other unions.
Some TDs highlighted how officials at the HSE and Department of Health suddenly began to reimburse expenses incurred after the topic became public.
Labour TD Derek Nolan said the fact expenses were refunded in 2010 showed that people knew it was wrong. Mr Nolan described the overseas visits as “wrong, lavish and over the top”. He expressed shock at SIPTU’s attitude, claiming it was “scandalous” that the union appeared to be blocking a HSE inquiry.
HSE internal auditor, Dr Geraldine Smith, expressed surprise there was no documentary evidence relating to the establishment of the fund which was controlled by SIPTU official, Matt Merrigan. “It’s not good governance in any man’s language,” observed Dr Smith.
Mr Merrigan also used the fund to donate €35,000 to charity, the PAC heard.
HSE chief executive, Cathal Magee, said the fund was “without precedence” and claimed it also had damaging repercussions on fundamentally sound initiatives designed to improve partnership.
PAC chairman John McGuinness wondered how the fund was allowed to operate for so long without proper controls.
Asked by Mr McGuinness if SIPTU was withholding information, HSE human resources director, Seán McGrath replied: “I believe they are.”
SIPTU general president, Jack O’Connor rejected this, claiming the union had provided all limited documentation under its control to the HSE.
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