Head of public accounts body accuses union of trying to ‘muddy the waters’ in slush fund probe
By MAEVE SHEEHAN
Sunday February 05 2012
THE head of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has rounded on Siptu for trying to “muddy the waters” in the investigation of how a taxpayer-funded €5m slush fund was spent by the country’s largest union.
John McGuinness yesterday accused Siptu of “playing games” and of attempting to point the finger at the Health Service Executive (HSE).
Mr McGuinness’s remarks follow reports that Siptu called in the Garda Fraud Squad over two payments of €190,000 destined for the union’s slush fund but which cannot be traced. The HSE already reported the slush fund to the Fraud Squad two years ago.
Mr McGuinness claimed that the union was using the powerful Dail committee as a “battleground to point the finger at the HSE”: “I think it is outrageous that a union of that size will do what they are doing and not answer questions.”
He added: “They seem to believe that they can muddy the waters and get away with it. Well, not on my watch. They will not get away with it.”
The PAC is investigating just how the union spent more than €5m in state funds, which were paid over several years into a bank account controlled by senior union official Matt Merrigan.
The money was paid by the Department of Health and channelled through the HSE. It was intended to be used for training and industrial relations — but was instead used to fund more than 40 foreign trips for civil servants, health workers and union officials.
Siptu agreed to appear before the PAC on March 1. However, Siptu has refused to disclose details of the financial transactions from the fund to anyone other than the Comptroller and Auditor General, whom John McGuinness has now asked to complete a definitive report on the slush fund debacle.
Siptu boss Jack O’Connor defended the union’s decision to go to the gardai, saying that he had referred two specific issues, relating to two lodgements totalling €380,000. The union has said it is its intention to fully assist the PAC, and has also promised every assistance to the Comptroller and Auditor General.
The union and the HSE have been at loggerheads over who bears most responsibility for the lack of governance of the slush fund. SIPTU has claimed it was simply unaware of the fund’s existence and lays the blame with the HSE.
The row has escalated in recent weeks as the HSE stepped up its attempt to track down the two supposedly missing sums of €190,000, seeking details of financial transactions from SIPTU.
In correspondence published by the Public Accounts Committee on Friday, the union said the €380,000 was never lodged into its accounts but accused the HSE of giving the impression that the money had “gone missing”.
The union suggested that responsibility lay with the Health Service Executive: “It now appears that members of the HSE bear responsibility for the failure to account for €380,000 of public funds.
“It is clear to us that certain members of the HSE may be the subject of investigation in respect of these payments.
“Of further concern is the fact that the HSE may also be the subject of Garda investigations, one which they initiated themselves and one initiated by Siptu,” general secretary Joe O’Flynn wrote to the HSE auditor.
In a letter to the PAC, the union said: “As Siptu was implicated in this most serious matter and, as we did not seek or receive the said monies, we have referred the matter to the Garda Fraud Squad for investigation.”
– MAEVE SHEEHAN