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Here's what we know (and don’t know) about RTÉ exit payments

Some politicians have called details of exit packages of all executives dating back to 2016 to be published.

RTÉ’S DIRECTOR-GENERAL Kevin Bakhurst has said the broadcaster will soon have updated legal advice on “how far we can push transparency” into confidentiality clauses in the exit packages of senior staff.

Over the weekend, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said there should be “full transparency of salaries and packages” within RTÉ, while the chair of the Oireachtas Media Committee Niamh Smyth has called for RTÉ to “come clean”.

MixCollage-20-Feb-2024-11-46-AM-7601 Some of the main figures behind the RTÉ exit payments controversy

Speaking yesterday, Bakhurst said the revelations have damaged trust in RTÉ but added that he will “try to explain what has happened on my watch and why I have exited people and why I have had to pay people to exit”. 

What do we know about the exit payments so far?

A review of voluntary exit packages (VEP) at RTÉ for 2017 and 2021 was published at the end of January.

The external review, carried out by McCann FitzGerald LLP, found the exit package for former chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe was “not considered and approved” by RTÉ’s executive board, despite it being a requirement under the rules of the scheme.

Of the more than 250 applications made through the voluntary exit scheme in the two years concerned, O’Keeffe’s application was the “only one” which was not considered and approved by the RTÉ executive board.

rte-former-chief-financial-officer-breda-okeeffe-arriving-to-give-evidence-to-the-committee-on-tourism-culture-arts-sport-and-media-at-leinster-house-dublin-on-the-controversy-around-ryan-tubrid Former RTÉ chief financial officer Breda O'KeeffE Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The report added that “responsibility” for the scheme did not lie with the ex-CFO O’Keeffe, but RTÉ and former director general Dee Forbes.

Bakhurst also told a Public Accounts Committee last July that he had “seen some emails on this” and that the package “was agreed” between Forbes and O’Keeffe.

O’Keeffe left RTÉ in 2020. 

RTÉ’s director general Kevin Bakhurst said he was “shocked by this serious breach of procedure” and added that he would ensure this would not happen again.

Last week, Bakhurst revealed to an Oireachtas committee that O’Keeffe received an exit package worth €450,000 when she left the broadcaster.

Following this revelation, Media Minister Catherine Martin told the Dáil that while “there may not be a legal obligation” to return some of this fee, there may be a “moral obligation”.

Other exit arrangements

On Saturday, Bakhurst issued a comment on the exit arrangements for four other former executives who left the broadcaster since he became director general. 

The executives were director of commercial Geraldine O’Leary, director of legal affairs Paula Mullooly, director of strategy Rory Coveney and chief financial officer Richard Collins.

Remarking that he was restricted following legal advice, Bakhurst said O’Leary, who retired from RTÉ the same day Bakhurst became director general, did not receive an exit payment, while Mullooly, who left last December to pursue another opportunity, did not receive an exit payment either.

However, Bakhurst said Coveney agreed that he should stand down, that his role then became redundant, and an exit payment was offered by RTÉ and accepted.

Bakhurst said he believes the manner in which Coveney stepped down “was the fair way for him to exit”.

rte-strategy-director-rory-coveney-arriving-at-leinster-house-dublin-to-appear-before-the-committee-of-public-accounts-to-speak-in-relation-to-the-controversy-around-ryan-tubridys-misreported-salar Former RTÉ Strategy Director Rory Coveney Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Coveney was described as the “driving force” behind an ill-fated Toy Show musical which lost RTÉ around €2.2 million.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime yesterday, Bakhurst described the musical as a “disaster” but added: “It was not enough on its own to fire him over.

“So if you can’t fire someone in a semi-state, you have to find another way of exiting them from the organisation in a way that provides value to licence-fee payers.”

Bakhurst also suggested that RTÉ could potentially have paid out double what was given if Coveney had taken a wrongful dismissal case with the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), which the director-general said was typically about two years pay.

Bakhurst said RTÉ expects to recoup the cost of the payment to Coveney by July this year, leading to speculation the payment was around one year’s salary, about €200,000.

He also remarked that the amount paid out was also “considerably less” than Coveney would have received under an RTÉ voluntary exit programme.

“We’re not in America, you can’t just fire people willy nilly with no repercussions,” said Bakhurst.

“Had I gone down that route, RTÉ would have a liability, which is substantially more than what we ended up paying.”

Regarding former CFO Richard Collins, Bakhurst confirmed on yesterday’s Drivetime programme that Collins was “paid to leave”.

While he declined to comment on how much Collins was paid, Bakhurst said: “I was of the view that I needed to refresh my leadership team, Richard was of the view that he wanted to stay here.

chief-financial-officer-richard-collins-leaving-the-committee-on-tourism-culture-arts-sport-and-media-at-leinster-house-dublin-on-the-controversy-around-ryan-tubridys-misreported-salary-payments Former RTÉ Chief Financial Officer Richard Collins Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“We both agreed that it’d be best to go through a mediated legal process so that we could find a way that was agreed through a formal process that Richard would leave the organisation and that I could bring in a new CFO to refresh the leadership team.”

Bakhurst added that this process included a “confidentiality clause” and that it is “standard in mediation processes” to put in a confidentiality clause into exit packages.

What’s been the response from politicians?

Yesterday, Media Minister Catherine Martin summoned Bakhurst and chairwoman of the RTÉ board Siún Ní Raghallaigh to her department.

Martin asked them to explore all options to provide further transparency, and this included requesting individuals involved to waive their rights under confidentiality agreements.

Asked yesterday if Bakhurst should resign, she said: “I think Kevin is the best person to be as DG in RTÉ. I think he has implemented substantial reform and has a body of work to do now, and a strategic vision, and following through on reform needed.”

Bakhurst also said he is not going to resign over controversy around exit arrangements.

file-photo-dated-1072023-of-new-rte-director-general-kevin-bakhurst-who-is-very-grateful-for-an-apparent-improvement-in-licence-fee-payments-as-the-organisation-awaits-the-provision-of-up-to-40-mi RTÉ director-general Kevin Bakhurst Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Martin added that confidentiality agreements should be avoided in any future severance arrangements at RTÉ and that caps on exit payments should be introduced.

Martin also said RTÉ had committed to a reform which would require board approval for future exit packages.

And speaking yesterday on RTÉ’s News at One, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee Brian Stanley said details of all exit packages of all executives dating back to 2016 should be published.

Stanley also called on Bakhurst to appear again before the PAC as soon as possible.

Elsewhere, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week said there is a “culture of arrogance” among senior figures within RTÉ, while Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said public trust in the broadcaster has “crumbled”.