THE DÁIL’S internal oversight committee is to meet in the coming weeks to examine whether as many as 14 TDs were in breach of ethics legislation by failing to disclose their previous membership of local councils in the Register of Members’ Interests.
TheJournal.ie has learned that the Committee on Members’ Interests will meet within the next fortnight to determine whether some TDs from four political parties, plus independents, fulfilled their obligations under ethics laws dating from 1995.
The meeting comes after this website learned that 18 members of the Oireachtas could be in breach of the Ethics in Public Office Act by not disclosing their previous jobs as local councillors – even though they automatically forfeit those positions when they are elected to the Dáil or Seanad.
The public ethics watchdog, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO), said it believed members were required to disclose any position they hold – or previously held – if it resulted in them receiving over €2,600 while they were a member of the Oireachtas.
It was reported last week that 22 current members of the Oireachtas – including 17 TDs and five members of the Seanad – had received gratuity severance payments from their former councils as a result of having been forced to give up their council seats.
Each of those payments crossed the €2,600 mark (the Irish Independent, which first reported the figures, noted that they averaged €34,300 each) – leading SIPO to tell TheJournal.ie that it believes those TDs and Senators should have listed their council positions on the Register of Members’ Interests for 2011.
Only four of the 22 members did so, however – meaning the other 18 members could be considered in breach of the act because they did not declare the former council jobs which led to them receiving the gratuity payoffs after they had already taken up membership of the Oireachtas.
Committee chairman Thomas Pringle said the committee would meet the week after next and would be “taking advice” on the issue, including seeking legal input from the parliamentary legal advisor.
Pringle said it was likely that any information received, or decisions reached, by his committee would probably be passed on to its Seanad counterpart, which could then examine whether four Senators had also failed to fulfil their obligations.
The committee itself – chaired by Pringle, with members from each of the three largest political parties – would be the final arbiter on whether any TD had been in breach of the rules, or subject to any potential sanction. The committee has the power to fine or suspend members from the Dáil for any ethical wrongdoing.
‘News to me’
Two of the 18 Oireachtas members – Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis and Fine Gael senator Jim D’Arcy – both said they had taken steps to amend their declarations for 2011 after being approached by this website for comment on the matter. D’Arcy’s amendment appeared in yesterday’s Iris Oifigiúil.
Some TDs said they believed they were not required to disclose the council positions because the gratuities were statutory payments – advice contrary to that offered by SIPO when contacted by TheJournal.ie last week – while others admitted to being unaware of the requirement.
Independent TD Tom Fleming said it was “news to me” that he would have to declare his Council position, given that the “statutory payment was in the public domain and on public record over the last year and a half”.
Ellis said the issue appeared to be “a grey area” and that the appropriate laws could “be interpreted two ways”, while Labour’s Kevin Humphreys said he had asked the committee to offer him direct advice on the issue.
Under statutory instruments enacted by then-ministers Noel Dempsey and Charlie McCreevy in 2002 – and amended by Dick Roche and Brian Cowen in 2006 – politicians leaving a local council after more than three years’ service are entitled to a gratuity severance payment when they step down.
Politicians are not eligible for the payment until they are 50 years old, however – meaning other current members of the Oireachtas, who had to give up their council seats after winning last year’s Dáil and Seanad elections, will be in line to receive severance payments in the coming years.