TRANSPORT MINISTER SHANE Ross asked if he could be given advance clearance on expenses claimed through a €37,000-a-year allowance before details of his spending were officially published.
The minister was told, however, that it was up to himself to ensure that all the expenditure that he claimed for was allowed.
The details are contained in correspondence between Independent TDs and Senators with the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) about how the controversial parliamentary activities allowance is accounted for each year.
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Mr Ross ended up claiming more than €6,000 in “entertainment” expenses under the scheme last year.
This included dozens of coffee mornings, catering and refreshments at the Oireachtas restaurant, €296.70 for drinks in the Dáil bar for a community group of twenty, and a dinner bill of €272.55 for eight people.
He also claimed €7,251 in “research and training” which, in his returns, was classified as providing for research and public relations with no further breakdown supplied.
The minister also paid out €10,639.50 for public “attitude sampling” as well. No further detail on what this involved was provided in the returns sheet that was made public.
Shane Ross’ spokesman said: ‘[The] minister … at one juncture looked at the question of engaging outside providers and made an enquiry to the relevant office regarding same. Ultimately, he recalls, he did not pursue the matter any further.”
Separately, Minister of State Sean Canney was twice asked for more details about expense claims made by him from the controversial allowance.
Under the heading of “policy formulation”, Mr Canney claimed €3,258 in expenses last year, which was entirely made up of restaurant and dining bills.
Among the claims were €874.60 spent at Cré Na Cille restaurant in the minister’s home town of Tuam, €332.80 at Matt the Thresher in Dublin, €330 at Finn’s Restaurant (also in Tuam), and a €570.95 bill from the Oireachtas restaurant.
In correspondence with SIPO, Mr Canney was asked to provide more details about the expense claims.
They wanted to know how the money spent on policy formulation had been “applied”. SIPO asked: “If you could provide more information on this expenditure?”
In his response to them, the minister said that his policy formulation expenses had “included meetings with office staff and advisors to discuss my views on various policies across all departments”.
He added: “I would also have meetings to discuss my stance on various issues including Government proposed legislation and Private Members Bill [sic] and motions.”
SIPO had also needed to look for additional information from Mr Canney in 2017.
In an email sent on submission of his return, the Commission said: “Please note that there is insufficient detail supplied on the form, as indicated in the explanatory note.
“The independent member should also note the following: specific details must be given, under the individual headings, of the actual matters to which the funding was applied.”
In a follow-up conversation with Mr Canney, SIPO confirmed they were looking for “further details … particularly regarding travel expenses”.
Mr Canney submitted a revised return to the Commission who said they were happy his returns were now complete.
In those returns, the minister claimed €3,184 in “policy formulation” expenses which again included restaurant bills, and also a trip to London.
Mr Canney had travelled to Westminster to “meet UK politicians on Brexit” and claimed for his air fare, a night in a Dublin Airport Hotel, and car parking.
He had also paid a €1,123.90 bill at Canavan’s pub in Belclare, near Tuam in Galway, from the allowance.
Rural Broadband Survey
On a separate issue, Mr Canney also asked SIPO if he could use the allowance to distribute a survey on rural broadband, which was contained in a newsletter.
Under the rules, newsletters are not permitted to be claimed as an allowed expense.
Mr Canney’s office responded saying: “Given that part of the leaflet is a survey, does that not constitute research?”
In reply, SIPO said: “Where a survey is used in a newsletter, only the portion covered by [the] survey can then be accounted for through the [allowance].
“In the attached newsletter it would appear that the survey takes up approximately 1/8 of the overall newsletter, accordingly 1/8 of the costs could then be apportioned through [the allowance].”
Asked about the requests for further information on his returns, Mr Canney told TheJournal.ie: “I submitted a detailed response which is on public record.”
He said a typo of 75 cent had been corrected by him and that the issue over the use of a newsletter to distribute a survey had been resolved “satisfactorily”.
There was confusion over claims made by a number of other TDs and senators, according to the documents released to Noteworthy.
In correspondence with Michael Healy-Rae, SIPO raised a query over expenditure of €571 for “an abortion group up for the vote”.
They said it appeared to them as if the money related to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment and “would therefore not be allowable”.
In response, Mr Healy-Rae’s office said: “Having checked our records, this all related to the Dáil votes on the legislation which was passed in November. It had nothing to do with the referendum vote itself.”
Mr Healy-Rae told TheJournal.ie: “This was an information briefing on the subject.”
SIPO were also in contact with Senator Lynn Ruane over expenditure that they felt was incorrectly classified.
The Commission queried €1,745 spent on “policy formulation – abortion access” and another €500 for an “agency and repeal event”.
They told Senator Ruane money could not be used to recoup election or referendum expenses.
In reply, the senator said the €1,745 related to her work on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment but the second €500 event was ruled out as not an “allowable expense”.
Ms Ruane said: “We developed an agency and repeal event workshop for people who didn’t have that much access to the type of information they needed.
“It was a training and educational day but you can not recoup [expenses] relating to a referendum. I just didn’t claim it in the end just to be safe.”
A series of small issues were also raised in correspondence with other politicians where the amounts being claimed did not exactly match in all documents. These related to discrepancies of just over a hundred euro to in some cases just a few cents.
SIPO said their responsibilities under the legislation were to ensure compliance by reviewing statements of expenditure from politicians and political parties.
Their head of ethics and lobbying regulation Sherry Perreault told TheJournal.ie where minor errors, omissions, or possible non-compliance were identified, they would request comments from the person responsible for submitting the statement.
She said: “If, after considering any response, or where a response is not received, the Commission remains of the view that there has been non-compliance, it may forward a report of the matter to the minister and to the Chairman of Dáil Éireann.
“The Commission has no powers of enforcement under the Act beyond issuing a report.”
Ms Perreault said SIPO were satisfied that their procedures to review statements and addressing omissions and errors are “robust”.
She said the Commission had previously called for a law change to give them an advisory role to allow them give advice on appropriate use of the allowance and make it legally binding.
Ms Perreault said: “This recommendation, repeated in subsequent annual reports, has not been actioned.
“I have no other comment on whether the current enforcement powers under the Act are sufficient. It is for the Oireachtas to determine whether additional enforcement powers may be provided.
“Ultimately, the responsibility for compliance rests with the parliamentarians (party leaders and independents) in receipt of the allowance.”
Do you want to know more about how the expenses system for TDs and Senators works?
Through Noteworthy, we are hoping to do a forensic trawl of all the ways in which expenses can be claimed by our national politicians.
We want to delve deep into the system, tell you exactly how it works, how much it costs, the loopholes available, and the deliberate ways in which access to the invoices and receipts that underpin these claims are kept secret.