herald

Thursday 14 December 2017

New probe on union's travel 'slush fund'

A high-level probe into the operation of a taxpayer-funded 'slush fund' is to be undertaken by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Two Siptu union officials set up the account intended to upskill and assist lower-grade workers in the health services, mainly through the HSE 'Skill' training programme.

However, around 14pc of the €5m fund was spent on foreign travel and subsistence for public-sector managers, union representatives and their spouses or partners.

The Dail's Committee of Public Accounts have requested that the Comptroller and Auditor General examine the operation of the 'unofficial' account, which operated between 1998 and 2010.

The Health Service Executive referred the matter to the Garda Fraud Squad. Recently, Siptu chiefs also referred the matter to the Fraud Squad.

John McGuinness, chairman of the Dail committee, said the decision to launch a further investigation arose from "a stand-off" between Siptu and the HSE. He said: "The committee has asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to make a comprehensive report to the committee on the operation of this account.







Account

"We can only finalise consideration of this issue when all the facts are before us. In that regard, the Comptroller and Auditor General must be given full access to all information...I have asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to come back to the committee if he is frustrated in his attempts to get access to full information."

At a meeting of the committee in December, Siptu was accused by HSE officials of deliberately withholding information from the HSE about the fund. Mr McGuinness had warned that he could use the Compellability Act to bring in officials to answer questions on the Siptu National Health and Local Authority Levy Fund.

Even though the account bears the Siptu name, the union has always denied having authorised it.

The committee heard the fund paid for 40 trips abroad for union, HSE and Department of Health officials, as well as covering hotel and restaurant bills. Fine Gael TD Simon Harris referred to it as "a slush fund."

Siptu president Jack O'Connor said afterwards the union wanted an opportunity to appear before the committee.

Mr O'Connor added: "I am totally ashamed and humiliated as president of the union at what has happened."

aokeeffe@herald.ie

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