Siptu was unaware of the existence of a “slush fund” operated by one of its senior staff because its name was “misleading”.
Siptu has also admitted it decided against sacking the man responsible for the fund following legal advice.
It said the Siptu Health and Local Authority Levy Fund — uncovered in 2009 but operating since 1998 — had “tarnished” its reputation.
Speaking before the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Joe O’Flynn, Siptu’s general secretary, admitted the union also paid €76,000 to “get sight” of a report into the workings of the fund, but still does not own this report which was carried out by accountants Grant Thornton. It was commissioned by the legal adviser to Matt Merrigan, the union official who operated the fund.
Mr O’Flynn also told the PAC that two current members of staff were among those who went on trips paid for out of the account, and that it was “almost certain” some past members also travelled on the funds.
The PAC also heard from the Department of Health and the HSE that its members had travelled on dozens of trips with money from the account.
The Comptroller and Auditor General & report criticised the lack of oversight of the setting up and management of the fund, for which bank records existed only from 2002 on. Some €4.15m was available for use up to 2009, with €1m returned between late 2010 and 2012. The C&AG said the net cost to taxpayers was €3.15m, with €2.2m spent on training initiatives.
The account was operated by Mr Merrigan, and union member Jack Kelly, as part of the HSE-funded Skills training programme.
“We should have known,” Mr O’Flynn said of the account, adding funders should also have tracked the flow of cash, which thanks to its name, was not entered into Siptu’s accounts.
Mr O’Flynn said a levy account, as understood by Siptu members, related to monies contributed by members with the cash then being used for education or hardship programmes.
He said by calling the account the Health and Local Authority Levy Fund, it escaped scrutiny, and was “a shock” when the HSE raised the issue in 2009.
Mr Merrigan was on some of the trips, some of which coincided with his annual leave. He retired last year on a pension and Mr O’Flynn said Siptu was told by a solicitor that a dismissal would not be upheld.
PAC member Derek Nolan TD said €1m had been “squandered” and was unaccounted for and yet no one seemed to be to blame. He suggested that the PAC interview more of the people involved in trips funded by the account.
Secretary general of the Department of Health, Dr Ambrose McLoughlin, said five serving and one retired official from the department had each travelled on 10 trips between 2003 and 2009 mostly paid for through the fund. He said there was no impropriety by any member of the department and prior approval had been granted in each case by managers. & He said he could find no evidence for sanctions against staff.
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