New KWETB chairman Noel Merrick chaired an oftentimes fractious meeting.
In one of his final acts as CEO before he retired at the end of the year Sean Ashe instructed that an outstanding legal bill be paid - even though the board of the Kildare and Wicklow Education Training Board (KWETB) had wanted to delay paying it until they could discuss it this morning.
At their last meeting on December 21, the board was told that the KWETB was facing a legal bill of €83,000 even though they had no role in engaging the legal firm involved and had difficulty getting access to the advice that was provided. At that meeting the members were told that the legal firm, Philip Lee, was pressing for payment.
The legal advice was provided to the previous chairman and vice-chairman of the KWETB Jim Ruttle and Brendan Weld. They were urged to get it by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) as a result of that organisation’s investigations into the KWETB, and before the Department of Education formally established its own investigation last October.
At their December meeting, board members were uneasy about being asked to pay a bill in the circumstances.
“We are being asked to pay for it, but we don’t know what it is,” Cllr Jennifer Whitmore remarked at the time. The matter was adjourned to the next meeting with a promise from the chairman Noel Merrick that he would get to the bottom of the matter.
However this morning the board members were told that the bill had already been paid. Interim CEO Rory O’Toole told the members that on December 22 they had received word that Philip Lee was pursuing High Court proceedings in order to get the bill paid. He outlined how on Christmas Eve, outgoing CEO Sean Ashe instructed that it be paid “to avoid exposing the organisation to any further costs”.
Mr O’Toole said it that as the incoming CEO he could “either ignore or rescind that order, neither of which I felt were prudent, so given the nature of the fees involved and the potential damage which could be done to the organisation’s financial reputation for non-payment, the decision to pay that bill has been taken and I’ve issued instructions that it will be paid”.
Cllr Reada Cronin said that she had “huge concerns about the matter”. She believed proper procedures were not followed when engaging the legal firm.
“Is the Department of Education going to come up with this €83,000, or what services that the KWETB provides will we need to cut to pay it? I think it’s absolutely outrageous.”
She said the legal firm had been engaged and paid without the approval of the board.
Chairman Noel Merrick said he believed that engaging the firm was an executive function, meaning that it was a decision staff could take although Cllr Cronin was not certain that this was the case.
The Vice-Chair John McDonagh outlined that he and Mr Merrick had spent a long time trying to get to the bottom of this last week. “We share all of the objections and issues that you have raised but the reality was, we have no out from this.” He said he believed that Cllrs Ruttle and Weld “acted honourably in getting legal advice. The really unfortunate thing about this is that we are trying to close the door after the horse has bolted.”
He added that the bill was not an unreasonable one. The rate of pay for the work was agreed under the National Procurement Rate, and the bill matched the amount of work done by the firm. “If we had tried to do anything about it (the bill) all we would be doing is incurring further costs, and lose more money for the KWETB services,” Mr McDonagh said.
Cllr Fiona McLoughlin Healy described the situation as an “absolute and utter farce. There was no resolution of the board.
“I asked you Noel, the question, whose bill was it?” she said, addressing the chairman.
“Is it the case or is it not that we cannot acquire services without a resolution of the board?
“Noel, there’s an absolute cover-up going on here!”
Later, as he tried to restore order she shouted over him: “Have respect for the board! It’s disgraceful!”
Brendan Weld, the Vice-Chair when the bill was incurred, outlined to the board how he and the then chair Jim Ruttle were strongly advised by the C&AG to get legal advice. A list of approved legal firms was presented to the pair and they picked one, Philip Lee. This was before the Dr Richard Thorn investigation was announced by the Department of Education in October.
Cllr Weld recounted to the meeting his surprise after he queried the use of public money for a legal bill and was told, he said, by a Department of Education official that the cost was “insignificant when public expenditure is being investigated”.
Rory O’Toole, the Acting CEO of the KWETB once again emphasised to the members that the organisation was under threat of High Court proceedings and that Philip Lee was engaged in good faith at agreed rates.
There was, he and others argued, nothing to be gained from delaying payment or querying the bill.
Cllr Reada Cronin asked if the bill had actually been paid and was told that the money had not left yet. She asked Mr O’Toole if he could rescind his order to pay it.
Mr O’Toole said that he could but that he wouldn’t.
Cllr McLoughlin Healy interjected: “You report to the board! How dare you take this unilateral action?”
However Noel Merrick intervened to say this was not the kind of language about staff members he wanted to hear at the KWETB.
Jennifer Whitmore noted that the episode “again demonstrates that this board is essentially powerless and this decision has been taken out of our hands”. In general, she believed that the board was hamstrung. She and others wanted the Taxing Master to consider the bill.
The discussion was adjourned to allow the members discuss the report by Dr Richard Thorn into the KWETB, which was released to members last week.