Standards in Public Office Commission - Is toothless body worth preserving?

The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo), the current ethics watchdog, has no teeth, so it is not able to bite.

It cannot even bark unless it is essentially invited to do so.

As a result it has been reduced to little more than irrelevant whimper on odd occasions.

At it stands the commission is another extravagant example of Government waste. Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has announced that long awaited legislation to reform the ethics laws for people in public life will be introduced early next year.

The need for reform had been apparent for over two decades. It was exposed by a whole series of reports that have uncovered the worst corruption in the history of the State.

The Glackin Report in 1993 exposed the sale of lucrative land owned by Telecom Éireann in Dublin, while the Beef Tribunal Report, the following year, dealt with allegations of corruption in connection with the beef industry, and the McCracken Tribunal uncovered the payments from Ben Dunne to Charlie Haughey and Michael Lowry.

All of those predated the establishment of Sipo in 2001, so the existence of corruption was already well established and the need for reform was painfully apparent.

Over the past decade the Ansbacher Report into the use of offshore accounts to evade tax, the Flood and Mahon Tribunal into political corruption in planning matters, and the Moriarty Tribunal into the awarding of the mobile telephone licence, all demonstrated a staggering degree of corruption.

Yet, in not one instance of all the primary political figures and public officials cited in the various reports did Sipo follow-up with its own inquiry.

The commission is supposed to police the Ethics Act, Local Government Act, and the Electoral Act, but it cannot initiate inquiries without receiving a complaint. Its duty is to alert the committee on members’ interests and the Department of Finance, and then wait for either of those to invite the commission to inquire into the allegations.

Sipo did conclude that a tax clearance certificate filed by the former TD Michael Collins was fraudulent, because he submitted it while holding an offshore account, to avoid paying Dirt. By the time Sipo was called upon to investigate the matter, however, the DPP had already decided to press criminal charges.

Following the conviction of Collins, such an investigation would have been a waste of time.

Sipo recently decided for only the eight time in its history to examine a complaint against somebody in public life.

This is to ascertain whether Michael Lowry was obliged to declare his ownership of land in Wigan in the register of members’ interest, or if the value of the property was so low as not to warrant it.

The commission did act on a complaint in relation to a senior engineer with Mayo County Council and — following an investigation — reported that the man had wronged the council by getting it to spend money improving a road to enhance the value of his own property.

Those allegations were subsequently the subject of a defamation action, and the man was awarded €38,000 in damages in a judgment that contradicted the main tenant of the Sipo report.

The need for reform is obvious but the question that should be asked in the circumstances is whether Sipo is worth preserving.

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