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The Garda Commissioner, the head of HR and the 'brief' two-hour meeting in Templemore

Nóirín O’Sullivan appeared before the Public Accounts Committee today and left members with more questions than answers.

“MY GOODNESS, YOU are officers of the law and trained detectives – I am shocked.”

This was TD Mary-Lou McDonald’s reprimand of Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and her Deputy Commissioner Donal O Cualáin as the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) tried to nail down why serious irregularities in the finances of the Garda College were not addressed before now.

Her outburst followed a bizarre exchange in which the organisation’s Executive Director of Human Resources, John Barrett, openly contradicted O’Sullivan about a meeting they had in relation to these issues in 2015.

These irregularities included a fund that was used for gifts and entertainment, rent collected for a site that should have been paid to the Office of Public Works and the transfer of money to the Garda Boat Club, which was described by one TD today as “embezzlement”.

In the more than five-hour hearing, the Commissioner told politicians that she first became aware of the extent of the issues when she received a report with recommendations from her head of legal affairs on 28 July that year.

Prior to that, on 27 July there was a very brief conversation in a room after meeting in Templemore in which Mr Barrett raised issues around work he was doing.

“The meeting was over two hours – it’s in the minutes,” Barrett interjected. He had become aware of audits from 2008 and 2010 that identified accounting irregularities and flagged them with his chief administrative officer. He had then compiled a report bringing the contents of these two audits together.

“My memory is that it was a brief meeting,” the Commissioner commented, in response to his contradiction.

At this point Sinn Féin’s McDonald asked for a short break for O’Sullivan to read Barrett’s minutes, noting that a two hour meeting is not “brief”.

The executive director of HR went on to explain that his detailed notes included “believe it or not”, the order in which people came into the room. This meeting began, he said, at 5.20pm.

I left the meeting at 19.37 and I was the first to leave.

“This is deeply problematic,” McDonald told garda managers, before asking Deputy Commissioner O Cualáin, from his recollection, how long this meeting was.

“I just note it was a very long day in the college,” was his response.

“My goodness, you are officers of the law and trained detectives – I am shocked,” the Sinn Féin TD hit back.

“My memory was that it was not a formal meeting, we were having some tea in the reception room,” the Commissioner said.

‘Embezzlement’

O’Sullivan and her management colleague had been summoned by the PAC to answer questions about a recent damning audit report on finances at the college.

In its report, the force’s internal audit department said it could offer no assurance that the internal management and control systems in place to manage the finances at the Garda College are adequate. It also described a control account called Sportsfield Co as a ‘corporate veil’ and revealed a ‘laundry’ account was used to pay for gifts, entertainment and society fees.

Members of the committee were left frustrated as the answer to question after question was, essentially, ‘we don’t know’.

Garda management was not clear about who had made certain vital decisions after issues were identified as far back as 2008, though the Commissioner promised work is being done to find this out.

“It seems to me there were attempts made by people within the garda college to frustrate the work of GIAS [Garda Internal Audit Section],” TD David Cullinane commented.

Later, Marc MacSharry suggested the transfer of €100,000 from Templemore’s funds to the Garda Boat Club was “embezzlement”. Several other members of the committee asked the Commissioner whether there were grounds to support the fact that a crime was committed.

“I have asked the people who have conducted the audit to date if there is anyone in the line management stream – all the way from the chief administrative officer, Mr Barrett, all the way down, or Mr Kelly, who conducted the audit report – who has reasonable grounds to suspect that a crime has been committed at this point.  I have been informed that there are no such grounds,” she told the committee.

Executive director of HR John Barrett, however, said it was “too early to say”.

‘Duped’

And the force’s head of audit, Niall Kelly, revealed he had sought copies of the 2008 audit of Templemore’s accounts that year and in 2009 but he did not receive them.

He said he brought up this issue with management at the time and in 2011 he noted this in a report to then Commissioner Martin Callinan. Kelly told the committee he later removed this paragraph from the final version of the report, having received assurances that the issues would be addressed. He said he regretted this decision.

“In hindsight, I would say I probably shouldn’t have taken the assurances that were provided to me.”

Later, when asked whether he felt he had been “duped”, Kelly said he did.

He told the committee he has never had a full staffing complement, as he was building his team right before recruitment moratorium kicked in. It should be at 11 – even now after additions to the team it is at 8.

The Garda Commissioner said an expansion of this section of the organisation had been approved and there are discussions now with the Policing Authority with a view to starting recruitment for the necessary skilled staff.

At the end of the more than five-hour hearing, the committee’s chair Alan Kelly described it succinctly as “extraordinary, incredible and frankly unbelievable.”

“I do not feel there is a unified team here, and I don’t have confidence the issues are being dealt with.”

Read: Garda report on Templemore college can give ‘no assurance’ that its financial management is even ‘adequate’>

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