Heated exchanges at committee on Garda’s handling of financial irregularities at Templemore
The civilian head of human resources at An Garda Síochána has described as “extraordinary” a claim that he may have been guilty of a crime for raising concerns about financial irregularities at the Garda training college in Templemore.
Testifying at the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (Pac), John Barrett delivered a blistering critique of the Garda’s executive director of finance Michael Culhane for writing to Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan suggesting that he, Mr Barrett, intentionally wanted to damage the force by raising questions.
Mr Culhane wrote to the Commissioner in October 2015 and questioned whether Mr Barrett had been unwittingly guilty of a criminal offense under the Official Secrets Act for expressing concerns about the finances at the Garda College in Templemore.
Mr Barrett told TDs that it was “appalling” that Mr Culhane’s letter was given to the committee on Tuesday despite him asking the Garda Commissioner six times for the letter either directly or through his solicitor.
He said that 85 per cent of the document had been released under the Freedom of Information Act was redacted “in protection of the very issues that the finance director has now discussed.”
“The interesting inversion of trust that was presented to you appals me. We requested legitimately a letter written about me that I had no knowledge of that alleges a potential criminal offence,” he said.
“Rights of natural justice, constitutional procedure – none of that existed – and I discovered it yesterday as being included in the pack to this committee.”
The Oireachtas committee is examining how the Garda discovered and audited the financial irregularities at the Templemore training college and how civilian whistle-blowers encountered repeated obstacles in discovering how funds were raised, how they were lodged in bank accounts and how the money was spent.
There were heated exchanges during the hearing as the committee scrutinised the role played by six civilians within the Garda in investigating into the financial irregularities, the latest in a string of controversies to have shaken confidence in the force and tarnished its reputation.
In an opening statement to the committee, Niall Kelly, the civilian head of the Garda’s internal audit unit, claimed that senior members of the force, his direct superiors, deliberately withheld information about the financial irregularities. He alleged interference and non-cooperation with the Garda’s internal audit.
Mr Kelly was behind the audit of the college, released in March, that found Templemore had been renting out land that it did not own, running 50 accounts and using public money to fit out privately owned shops.
The civilian whistle-blower told the committee that he was “convinced that there was and there may still be in some parts of An Garda Síochána a culture of not admitting to problems and when these problems persist, trying to keep them in-house and away from transparent public scrutiny”.
There was culture evident within the Garda that thinks the force “is different from other public sector bodies and that normal processes of financial procedures and transparent democratic accountability do not apply,” Mr Kelly said.
Mr Culhane was subjected to rigorous questioning at the committee over his claim to the Commissioner that Mr Barrett might be guilty of a criminal offence for revealing details of financial irregularities.
Asked by Independents 4 Change TD Catherine Connolly whether he regretted suggesting this, the Garda director of finance said: “With the benefit of hindsight, it probably wasn’t wise to make that statement.”
He had objected to how his colleagues had disclosed information about the Garda College.
He had sufficient confidence in his colleagues to deal with issues within the Garda openly, he said, and that he didn’t believe it necessary to prepare an independent report and send it to himself by registered mail.
“If there are issues in An Garda Síochána, they should be dealt with openly,” he said.
Mr Culhane told Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane that he had been concerned that Mr Barrett might have leaked details of the financial irregularities to the media.
Under questioning by Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry, the Garda finance chief denied he was party to a culture of senior Garda figures “circling the wagons” in response to criticism of the force.
“I was trying to work in that kind of environment,” said Mr Culhane. “I was meeting the same type of opposition. What I could achieve or do in that period of time – I was operating with a difficult environment as well.”
Mr Barrett, who took up his job in the Garda in October 2014, described Mr Culhane’s explanations as “fanciful” and said that the irregularities should have been dealt with “much more expeditiously.”
“The circumstances under which cooperation was not forthcoming is a reality. This was an uphill push. I couldn’t understand why, quite frankly, and the fact that the matters remained in existence in the period since 2008, I think, speaks for itself,” he said.
Mr Culhane withdrew a past statement claiming that Mr Kelly’s internal audit report into the Garda College was “unprofessional, misleading and mischievous”.
Mr Cullinane described Mr Kelly’s statement as “explosive” and said that it was “incredible” that Mr Culhane was claiming before the committee that he did not try to interfere with the work of the Garda’s head of internal audit when he tried to get him withdraw a report and had threatened him with legal action.
Labour TD Alan Kelly described Mr Culhane’s testimony as “the most incredible evidence I have heard as a member of the Pac – and not in a good way.”