A team of MLAs were incorrect when they gave the all-clear to Sinn Fein over payments to a firm run by leading party figures.
That was the verdict of Pat McCartan, the man who is in charge of making rulings about MLAs’ allowances, after the Assembly Commission decided that no action was to be taken to recover any of the roughly £700,000 in expenses payments made by Sinn Fein MLAs to Research Services Ireland (RSI).
He told the News Letter that the rules around expenses changed back in spring 2012, effectively barring payments by MLAs to companies which were “masquerading” in this way. Nonetheless, he believes payments continued after that time.
Further questions are now being asked about the affair by TUV leader Jim Allister, who had revealed the news that the commission has taken no action over the claims.
He yesterday dubbed it a “disgraceful episode”.
The issue dates back to 2014, when BBC’s Spotlight show had aired details of the £700,000-worth of payments, saying they had been made over a roughly 10-year period by dozens of Sinn Fein MLAs.
RSI was run by Sinn Fein finance managers Seamus Drumm and Sinead Walsh, and the BBC said at the time it could find no evidence of any research having been done.
The Assembly Commission – which is made up of six MLAs, drawn from the biggest parties – decided that this was “admissible expenditure”.
As such, it added that “no recovery has been sought” of the money paid to RSI.
It said that while payments had been made up to and including the financial year ending in April 2013, “no payments to RSI for work undertaken after 31 December 2012 have been made”.
However, Mr McCartan said that from April 2012 onwards, the practice of selling research to MLAs was banned by Mr McCartan’s newly set-up Independent Financial Review Panel – which essentially sets the rules on expenses, which the commission (designed to oversee the running of the Assembly) is then meant to administer.
Mr McCartan estimates that about £150,000 was paid to RSI between April 2012 and the end of that year –in other words, during the period after the bar came into force.
“There was a ban in effect,” he told the News Letter.
“We made our determination [and] published it on the 14th of March 2012, to take effect from the 1st of April... its effect should have been to stop such payments to what are effectively private companies which are masquerading; the directors are clearly part of the political party.”
He added: “The commission has apparently said these levels of payments are ok.
“I think they went on to say they were ok right up to the 31st of December... they clearly aren’t – I know that.”
Asked if he feels that the granting of the all-clear to these roughly £150,000-worth of payments represented a simple oversight by the Assembly Commission, he laughed and said: “No. They’re no oversight.”
When asked what he thinks does lie behind it, he replied: “Don’t know.”
He said it was a matter for the commission to explain.
He said that his Independent Financial Review Panel would have taken action itself over the matter, but it does not have the same powers as its counterpart in Westminster.
These include recouping money, or referring the matter to the police if they believe there to have been fraudulent activity.
The matter was initially raised on the BBC’s Sunday Politics yesterday, and the SDLP’s Karen McKevitt, one of the commission’s members, said she could not speak last night because she was away for Valentine’s Day and had not seen the programme.
Fellow member Judith Cochrane of the Alliance said: “I’m not entirely sure; you’re talking three years ago.”
She said she was “not sure exactly when they [the review panel] put in additional rules” around payments to firms like RSI, but that she would be able to find out at the start of this week.
When the idea was put to her that it may not have been a simple oversight, she said: “I would very much doubt that the staff in the Assembly would process something if they thought it was not within rules... I can’t guarantee it, but I’d very much doubt that they would if they didn’t think that it was within the rules.”
Asked if it is something she as a member would have okay-ed as well, she said that claims for payments to RSI had been split among a large number of MLAs over a long period.
“We don’t see every single claim that comes in front of us,” she said.
Sinn Fein was asked to respond, but did not.
TUV MLA Mr Allister said: “This is a disgraceful episode in the Assembly’s handling of public money, but the situation is compounded if Stormont carried on with these unwarranted payments after Mr McCartan’s panel drew it to their attention.”
He added that he has posed a number of questions to the commission.
He wants the commission to specify “in detail the bona fide research which the commission found had been properly obtained and by whom”, to find out exactly how RSI operated and for whose benefit, and to ask how it had determined that all payments to RSI were “admissible expenditure”.
WHO IS RSI?:
RSI’s address is listed as 148-152 Springfield Road in west Belfast.
The company has no website, and its latest accounts list its status as “dormant”.
The firm was set up in October 1998.
According to Companies House – the official register of firms in the UK – the nature of its business is currently: “Other business support service activities not elsewhere classified”.
Its accounts list two shares as having been issued in the company at £1 each.
Another organisation with an address listed at 148-152 Springfield Road is the Clonard Residents Association, which states that it has offices on the first floor.
One of the association’s directors is Sinn Fein figure Sean ‘Spike’ Murray, whose occupation is listed in its company accounts as “unemployed”.