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WRC

Investigations unit in Dept of Agriculture 'decimated' by 'interference', whistleblowers claim

One ex-inspector alleged several investigations were “shelved” following his transfer from the division.

A SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS unit in the Department of Agriculture targetting criminal fraud in farming and the food chain was left “decimated” and with a “dwindling number” of investigators amid alleged “interference” from politicians and senior management, two of its most senior former veterinary inspectors have claimed.

They have claimed they were moved out of their long held roles due to “interference” arising from the work they carried out in their jobs, with several investigations “shelved” following their exit.

Louis Reardon, a veterinary inspector with almost 20 years’ service at the Department of Agriculture, has alleged to the Workplace Relations Commission that his career was brought to a “shuddering halt” when he was involuntarily transferred out of his job with the department’s special investigations unit.

He has claimed this was because of a protected disclosure in which he accused senior officials and politicians of “interfering” to block investigations.

The case has been taken under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014.

At the first hearing in March of last year, Reardon accused a range of senior politicians of “political interference” as a way of frustrating criminal investigations into farmers and pharmacists by the Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Agriculture has denied the claims and said the inspectors were moved out of the department following a review by an internal steering group.

In evidence provided by former department officials, the decision to carry out the transfer came about due to the investigative work undertaken in the unit having an “attritional” effect on staff and leaving Reardon “very stressed” and “difficult” to work alongside, with the division becoming “harder to manage”.

However, Reardon’s barrister Darach MacNamara put forward that the membership of the steering group was made up of three people who knew about the protected disclosure through their roles handling whistleblower complaints.

‘White collar’ investigations

Reardon, who the WRC heard handled complex “white collar” investigations which sometimes focused on animal pharmacies related to the horse and greyhound industries, made his protected disclosure to the then minister for agriculture Michael Creed on 2 August 2017.

The next day, Reardon was approached by his manager Pat Flanagan who told him to give “serious consideration” to a move to a wildlife unit or else he may find himself transferred out of the investigations.

Flanagan told the court that he contacted Reardon after following a request made earlier that same day by his boss, the then director of veterinary services Michael Sheehan, who did not appear in court.

Flanagan confirmed he made a similar approach later that month August to John McConville, another veterinary inspector who was later involuntarily transferred from the unit.

He told the WRC adjudication officer Tom O’Driscoll that its investigation was mishandled and, after he queried the investigation in February 2020, he was notified he would be moved from the department.

He said he was moved out of the unit and was told it would be positive for his career, which he said came “totally out of the blue” with no discussion beforehand.

Reardon instead said the transfer from Kilkenny to a different unit examining TB in Waterford had an “extremely adverse effect” on his career.

He said he had a discussion with his manager which centered on him “expressing frustration at interference from on high into investigations” focused by Reardon.

Barrister for the department, Sarah-Jane Hillery, said Reardon’s transfer was in line with recommendations made by a steering group examining the work of the special investigations unit.

She added that evidence from department officials showed there was no intention to “get” Reardon for his investigations and that the prospect of transfers was something that had been “in the ether” for a number of years for the investigations unit.

Hillary also said that Reardon and McNamara’s argument that the protected disclosure set in train a chain of events, starting the day after the disclosure was sent by the inspector, assumed a “remarkable efficiency” on the department’s part.

She said the review of the investigations division was initiated prior to Reardon’s protected disclosure, in April 2017, and that its list of 20 recommendations were put into being over the next three years.

Transfers

A witness for Reardon was McConville, a former veterinary inspector in the same unit gave evidence stating that he felt the transfers had “no logic” to them.

McConville, who was moved around the same time as Reardon, in June 2020, was focused on animals thefts in the border counties from a base in Co Louth.

McConville said he felt his and Reardon’s move “made no sense”, describing the latter’s work as being focused on “white collar” schemes around animal remedy legislation involving the horse and the greyhound industry.

He said the work required understanding “complex” legislation and that it could take “five to ten years” to have the experience to prepare files, prosecutions and be able to give evidence in court, and that the division had been “decimated” during his time there.

“When Louis Reardon was moved, the capacity for the department to tackle that sort of criminality was gone,” McConville said.

He added that the unit had suffered from a “dwindling number” of investigators over the years despite a review stating an aim for up to 16 investigators, instead having three active investigators for the entire country.

“There were six or seven files but all had to be shelved as the expertise wasn’t there to complete them.”

McConville added: “Why move the experienced people? Especially when nobody had been trained up to carry out investigations.”

Resignation over new tender

McConville, who joined the unit in 2003, said he believed he was transferred over concerns he had about a bovine tagging system.

He said he was a member of a committee working through approval for a tender for a new tag design, which was to prevent the “switching of cattle” by tampering with their tags, thereby preventing tracing the animals in the food chain.

“Without a good tagging system you can’t stand over authenticity of any animal coming through the system,” McConville told the court.

However, McConville claimed he resigned from the committee as it was “pushing ahead” with selecting a tagging system which had “failed” during testing.

He explained that had been shown the tag could be opened and closed with “very little evidence” that the tag had been tampered with. This was an “absolute no-no”, according to McConville.

“It means the tag could be taken from any animal and put to another and means you couldn’t know whether the animal had been switched”.

He said when he raised concerns, he was told “to pull on the green jersey” and felt he was deemed “troublesome” as a result.

He added that he “wasn’t following the path that business or trade” required and was trying to insist that we stick to the minimum standard for that tag tender.

“But the committee were in a rush to get that tag through,” he alleged. “I resigned, I couldn’t stand over it.”

Mobility policy

The court heard from a number of witnesses who worked in the department throughout the period of implementing the steering group’s review.

McNamara, for Reardon, said a “mobility policy” allowing the transfer of ‘professional grade’ staff such as Reardon and McConville should not have been allowed.

John Higgins, a veterinary employee of the department since 1996 and former president of the Veterinary Officers Association, said it had always been his undertsanding that the department’s mobility policy did not apply to veterinary grades.

When asked for his reaction to news of Reardon’s transfer, he said was very surprised. “I have never heard that happen before and I was very surprised at the fact that could happen.”

McNamara said the policy was provided on “unauthored, undocumented” paper with no heading or logo, and questioned its provenance.

Kevin Galligan, then personnel manager within the HR department and now head of corporate affairs, said that the purpose of the steering group’s review of the investigations division was because it had an “attritional” effect on its members.

He said the review would allow the department to “freshen up” the team while allowing more professional opportunities for senior and junior staff.

Tim Drea, who took over the investigations division from Pat Flanagan, said he took the decision in June 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic to transfer Reardon, McConville and an unnamed third longstanding member of the division.

Drea said he felt that restrictions due to the pandemic provided an opportunity to implement the final change recommended in the review initiated in April 2017.

“I felt I was looking at a group of people who had spent too long in a pressure keg,” he said was how he felt when he first took over the division from Flanagan.

Drea admitted he didn’t know “about the nuances” of policies around transfers for people of Reardon and McConville’s level, and that he went ahead with imposing the transfer after speaking to the HR department.

“I was subjected to ‘mobility’ myself. I got a phone call and was told to go – so I went.”

Regarding the criticisms of the division, Drea said that up to eight files have been sent forward to the Chief State Solicitor’s Office in Dublin as part of investigations by new inspectors in the unit.

Drea confirmed that Reardon was correct to say that up to eight of his investigations “fell by the wayside” following his sudden transfer, but claimed that the files did not contain “earth-shattering” material.

Sunday paper

Galligan and Drea, both of whom were members of the steering group, separately confirmed that they were not aware Reardon had made a protected disclosure about what McNamara called “embarrassing” issues for the department.

Instead, they said they became aware of Reardon’s protected disclosure thanks to a newspaper article by Sunday Independent journalist Paul Kimmage outlining issues within the division.

Hillary, for the department, said Reardon’s new role covering TB issues for Waterford and Kilkenny was not a demotion and that he hasn’t suffered any material loss.

Morgan Lyons, who headed up the office after Reardon was transferred there, gave evidence stating that there are 200 veterinary professionals in the department who would disagree with any contention that the job was a stepdown.

Lyons added that he had told Reardon he thought he had been “treated badly” over the circumstances of his transfer. He said Reardon was often unavailable for work in his office, due to needing to tend to case files from his old role which were being prosecuted in court, and because Reardon had taken two periods of sick leave.

As part of any remedy for the case if the adjudicator O’Driscoll finds in Reardon’s favour, McNamara said his client has an appetite to be reinstated to his old unit.

O’Driscoll told the court that a decision would be issued on the case within 42 days.

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