The chief state solicitor has mentioned legal issues as the reason for refusing to answer questions by the public spending watchdog about her office’s role in arranging a €2m lease on a building which was never used.
The chief state solicitor, Eileen Creedon, told the Public Accounts Committee that she didn’t feel in a position to assist it because legal proceedings against the landlord of the premises and an architect had commenced on Wednesday.
The PAC had sought to quiz Ms Creedon about a report by the Comptroller & Auditor General which criticised the role of her office in providing legal advice in the negotiation of a lease for a premises on Wolfe Tone St in Dublin to house the Bridge Project — a scheme operated by the Probation Service to reintegrate male former prisoners back into the community.
The building was leased in 2008 but Dublin City Council warned the Bridge Project in Mar 2010, at a time when it was about to start using the premises, that planning permission for its change of use had expired in 2006.
In a report, the C&AG said over €2m had been spent on the project, for which the intended benefits had not been received. It claimed it was reasonable for the Department of Justice to have expected the non-compliance of the premises with planning requirements would have been identified.
The C&AG, Seamus McCarthy, said the chief state solicitor’s office had disagreed with the recommendation of his office that it should review its risk assessment methods in relation to planning compliance on property acquisitions and the practice of relying on architects’ opinions.
However, Ms Creedon said she felt constrained about her ability to respond because of legal proceedings but stressed she did not want to be unhelpful or obstruct the committee’s work.
The chief state solicitor said the only issue was timing and stated that she would be happy to respond to any questions about the matter at the conclusion of any legal action.
She claimed her overriding duty was to the taxpayer and she was concerned that any comment on the case could prejudice future court proceedings.
However, Ms Creedon reassured the PAC that her office took the issue of risk assessment with “the utmost seriousness”.
PAC chairman John McGuinness expressed amazement at the background to the controversy. He claimed the annual rent of €309,000 on the Wolfe Tone St premises was exorbitant given the Bridge Project was subsequently housed in another building with an annual rent costing just €10,000.
The secretary general of the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell, admitted that, in hindsight, the initial rent was “expensive”.
Mr McGuinness also accused the Department of Justice of having “a history of loose management” over a considerable number of buildings, particularly in relation to asylum accommodation.
He pointed out the State had also written off around €4m on a new building for the State pathologist in Dublin after the developer who won the contract, Michael McNamara, had been placed in receivership by Nama.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved