Department expense database

[Crossposted to thestory.ie]

Readers may recall a blog post I wrote back in December detailing my dealings with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism (DAST). After gleaning information from the footers of Ken Foxe’s FOIs concerning John O’Donoghue, I established that the Department was using Oracle iExpense software to store expenses information.

I wrote an FOI request in October asking for a ‘datadump’, of the entire database since inception (in other words, a copy of the database). The Department refused both the original request and the appeal for internal review (conducted by a more senior official in the Department).

In January I appealed the decision to the Office of the Information Commissioner. The request, internal review and appeal have cost a combined €240 (kindly made available by you, the public).

The Appeal letter to the Information Commissioner

Today I am pleased to say that I have reached a settlement with the Department, brokered by the Office of the Information Commissioner. The Department have agreed to release almost the entire database, with some elements removed. This is not a formal decision of the Commissioner, but is instead a settling of the issue. This just means that a formal OIC Decision was not required as the two parties reached an agreement.

The settlement is this: the entire expenses database of the Department, to include the follow expenses data headings:

Description, Grade, Full Name, Claim, Date, Purpose, Status, Total Claimed, Distribution Line Number, Start Date, Expense Type, Euro Line Amount, Currency Code, Currency Rate, Amount Quantity Unit, Rate Net Total, (EUR) Payment Date, Withholding Amount Invoice, Amount, Amount Paid.

Cost Centre numbers, employee cost centre numbers, named approvers and justification fields have been removed. There are also some removals from other fields which is either considered personal information or information obtained in confidence. These removals do not mean the information is redacted per se, it just means that in order to get the data, I agreed to remove certain columns in order to expedite the process. It does not preclude me from seeking the justification field, for example, in the future.

The data contains €774,882.29 of expense claims by named civil servants over a five year period (2005 to 2009 inclusive). The amount involved might appear relatively small, but it is the quality of the data that is more significant.

I cannot overstate the importance of the release of this data, and there are a number of reasons why this is the case.

Firstly, it sets an important precedent in terms of what information can be obtained from public bodies. In their refusals to release this data, the Department cited three sections of the Act which they felt exempted them from releasing it. The OIC felt differently. While not a formal decision of the OIC, a settlement was justified in this case as the Department were amenable to releasing the majority of the data sought. Decisions can take far longer to get (up to two years), so I felt that on balance the offered information in the settlement was acceptable.

Second, are the broader implications.

Following this settlement with DAST, I have started the process of requesting similar expenses data from the Department of Agriculture and Food, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the Department of Community Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs, the Department of Defence, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform, the Courts Service, the Industrial Development Authority, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government, the Department of Finance, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Transport, the Health Service Executive, the Revenue Commissioners, FÁS and Enterprise Ireland.

I believe the combined expenses data for these (and other) bodies will run to tens, if not hundreds of millions of euro.

But perhaps most critical is this: I sought the data not as a journalist looking for a scoop, not as a member of the public with an axe to grind, but as a transparency advocate only interested in the public interest. By publishing this, and coming data, I believe the public is served by a more open and accountable State – where data related to how some public monies are spent is no longer hidden, but is in full view. Transparency keeps the system honest.

I should also make clear that publishing this data is not an attempt to embarrass any one person, nor does it form the basis of any claim that somehow there was something unjustified about any expense claimed by civil servants. It is simply an exercise in transparency, and no more.

And I will leave readers with one question.

If I am getting this data and intend publishing it in its entirety online for the public to see, what is stopping the Government from doing the same, proactively, without question, and as a matter of course?

In the end, sunlight benefits us all.

The dataset, presented as is (and containing some macros):

Department of Arts, Sport & Tourism expenses database

TD/Senator expenses 2005 – 2008

[cross posted to thestory.ie]

For the record and as part of an ongoing FOI request, here are all expenses and salaries of all TDs and Senators, 2005 – 2008. I received them today via email from the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. We hope to digitise this data shortly. I also received the following note:

In relation to the break down of allowances I wish to clarify the following:

1. Telephone Allowance is paid as an annual allowance on a quarterly basis to all Members. The allocation of this allowance to specific telephone bills is a matter for each individual Member, consequently the allowance is not quantified into land line calls and mobile phone calls. Any expenses incurred by members over and above this allowance have to be met by the individual Member.

2. Each member is also entitled to 1,750 “Post Office Preferred, pre-paid DL (one third A4) sized envelopes each month. Any postal charges that are over and above the pre-paid amount must be paid by the Member at the time of posting.

3. Daily Allowances appear within the Travel and Subsistence amounts on the records of any Member who is claiming Daily Allowance, this allowance is a flat rate allowance and there is no mileage element. Members who live within 15 miles of Leinster House can only claim this Daily Allowance.

4. The Travel and Subsistence Allowance for Members is paid as a combined figure through our financial management system and appears in the record as one monetary amount, consequently the record as released will give an overall figure for Travel and Subsistence in each subsequent year.

5. The Allowance to attend in the Houses for the purpose of conducting parliamentary business with other Members and the allowance to use the House facilities are again paid through our Financial Management System. These allowances are processed with the travel and overnight element of the claim, consequently they again appear within the Travel and Subsistence record as a monetary amount in the overall record. There are 25 nights allowed for using the House facilities and 5 nights for conducting parliamentary business.

6. Payments made in a given year can relate to a claim period for the same or a previous year.

7. Office and position holders have higher allowances due to the higher expenses they are deemed to have incurred.

Please note that former Members of the Oireachtas, Mr Tony Gregory T.D., Mr Joe Sherlock and Mr. Seamus Brennan T.D. (former Minister) and Senators Tony Kett, Kate Walsh, Peter Callanan details of whose expenses are included, have since died.

I would like to draw your attention to an administrative error which occurred in the payment of the Constituency Office Maintenance Allowance (COMA) which was beyond the control of Members. This allowance was overpaid by €931.83 in 2008 to re-elected Members due to a calculation error. As the COMA is paid in arrears, this overpayment took place in January 2008 and it therefore appears in the 2008 records. Accordingly the COMA for 2008 is overstated by €931.83. All Members affected were notified and all monies have been fully recouped. You should also note that some Coma payments made in 2008 related to expenses incurred in previous years which were not claimed until 2008.

You should also be aware that while some Members have monies showing in two positions, e.g. whip to a party and a committee position this signifies that they held these positions at different times in the year. The Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial, Parliamentary, Judicial and Court Officers Amendment Act 1998, states under Section 6(2) that “If a member is eligible during any period to receive more than one of the allowances provided for in sections 3, 4 and 5 of this Act, only the higher or highest of those allowances shall be paid or payable to the member during that period”.

I would also like to clarify that the amounts which appear for Members in receipt of Committee Allowances for 2008 in most cases are not an annual figure as various Members were allocated positions in 2007 and payment for these positions were not paid until 2008. The figures which appear are not reflective of annual amounts. I have included a schedule of specified position amounts which were in effect during 2008 for your assistance.

You should also be aware that following a Boundary Commission Report in 2007, several constituency boundaries were revised and re-categorised. All Members in constituencies which were re-categorised were reverted to the lowest rate and were subsequently repaid the correct allowance in January 2008, which in some cases included arrears. The figures which appear in 2008 again for some Members are not reflective of an annual amount.

Explanatory document

Deputies salary and allowances 2005
Deputies salary and allowances 2006
Deputies salary and allowances 2007
Deputies salary and allowances 2008

Senator salary and allowances 2005
Senator salary and allowances 2006
Senator salary and allowances 2007
Senator salary and allowances 2008

John O'Donoghue resigns

It took months of work by Ken Foxe at the Sunday Tribune. His efforts deserve every applause.

For my own part, I started posting Ken’s FOI work online on August 18. I hope this helped in some way to get Ken’s work more exposure, and help force this resignation. For even half of the trips at the Department of Tourism, John O’Donoghue should have resigned. It took another set of expenses to tip it over the edge.

Mr O’Donoghue is a national disgrace. He has disgraced his party, disgraced the office he holds, disgraced our parliament, and disgraced our country.

But the FOI work continues.

Update: Taoiseach’s statment:

“In indicating his intention to step down from the office of Ceann Comhairle, John O’Donoghue TD, acted in the best interests of Dáil Éireann,
and the office of Ceann Comhairle. He has been a most effective and fair Ceann Comhairle who has acted with commitment and integrity to ensure that the members of Dáil Éireann could debate freely and fairly the issues of the day.”

“The Ceann Comhairle has indicated that he wishes to make a statement to the House next week, I respect his right to do that. I thank him for his contribution to this Dáil as Ceann Comhairle and I wish him well for the future.”

Those NTMA pay scales

Last week I blogged a response I had received from the Department of Finance concerning Government consultations over the establishment of NAMA. The response was prompted by an FOI request, seeking the titles, dates and authors of consultation reports for the Government (seeking the documents themselves would have been refused outright).

What it brought to light, in a small way, was how little in-house expertise the Government has. Reports were written for the Government by Merrill Lynch, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Arthur Cox, Peter Bacon, Rothschild, and HSBC. If you are wondering who drafted the NAMA legislation, the answer lies somewhere between all of these companies and people, the Department of Finance and the Minister. It would also be fair to say that the Irish banks must have had input into the process, since they are the ones who are being saved from bankruptcy.

Many of these companies though were engaged not by the Department of Finance, but by the National Treasury Management Agency. They are the guys who issue sovereign bonds and manage the national debt, or as their website says:

The 1990 Act empowers the NTMA “to borrow moneys for the Exchequer and to manage the National Debt on behalf of and subject to the control and general superintendence of the Minister for Finance and to perform certain related functions and to provide for connected matters”.

Now my interest is piqued because the salary of NTMA chief executive Michael Somers is secret. The same is true, it appears, of all other staff at the NTMA.

Thanks to some helpful readers, from what I can gather, NTMA pay bands are as follows:

91 members of staff are paid below €80,000 a year.
22 staff are paid between €80,000 and €100,000 a year.
27 staff are paid between €100,000 and €200,000 a year.
9 staff are paid over €200,000 a year.

The average bonus paid in 2008, for work during 2007, was €21,447.

I make that 149 members of staff. I also make that a bonus fund mean of €3.1 million for 2007. If we take the lower tier staff, and take the upper range of figures, we could surmise that at the maximum budget allowed (if people are all paid at the top of the range, which is unlikely) is:

€7.28m
€2.2m
€5.4m

Which would make €14.8m at the maximum allowable wage for each person. Add that to bonuses of another €3.1m. This excludes the 9 staff, since there is no ceiling there. We are hitting €20m in staff costs alone, minus directors. It is rumoured that Mr Somers earns anywhere between €200,000 and €1,000,000 a year.

The question is this: As a taxpayer am I entitled to know the salary of Mr Somers, and other highly paid staff at the NTMA? Is the public interest better served by this information being available, or is it better served by it being secret? The Government would argue that such high wages are needed to get the skills necessary from the private sector, and if these people were not working in the public sector, they could be earning more in the private sector – therefore we need high wages.

I don’t buy it. Where is the spirit of public service, like we see in the US? I am certain that many of the people working in the finance arms of the Obama administration want to work in service of the State because it is a part of a citizen’s duty. The salaries of many high ranking officials are freely available too. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner earns $191,300 a year, minus expenses. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke earns the same amount minus expenses (Although Geithner’s predecessor had an estimated net worth of $500m thanks to his years at Goldman Sachs).

The salaries of people who are being paid by the taxpayer, such as people at the NTMA, should be published on their website. We have to ask ourselves how the public interest is served by keeping this information secret, and if any arguments in favour of secrecy have merit. The interest in their salaries is not prurient, it is simply how accountable systems work. Publish the information, then we know.

No big deal, right?

So the next question is this: Under what section and subsection of the FOI act would a request for salaries be refused?

Mary Hanafin's trip to India

[cross posted to thestory.ie]

In 2006 the Government went on a trade mission to India. Mary Hanafin as Minister for Education went along. I put in the following FOI request:

1) The Minister’s schedule and appointments between January 1, 2006 and March 1, 2006.

2) A breakdown of flight costs, accommodation costs, hospitality costs, and any other costs borne by the Department for a trip taken by the Minister to India in January 2006, and a breakdown of any expenses claimed.

I will upload the schedule later. The total trip cost €26,421.14. Flights cost €20,912.84. Ms Hanafin’s flight alone cost €8,990.28.

For now, here is the spreadsheet of costs (go to the bottom of the sheet and click “costs India trip” :

Hanafin India 2006

I do not believe removing the names of other people who went on the trip is warranted under Section 28 (1) (personal information). I will be appealing this element of the request.

Reports prepared for NAMA

Some time ago I sought the following information from the Department of Finance:

1) The titles, dates and authors of all cost-benefit analyses, impact reports or preparatory reports that have been carried out by the Department in relation to NAMA

2) The titles, dates and authors of all cost-benefit analyses, impact reports or preparatory reports that have been carried out by people or companies working on behalf of, or at the request, of the Department, in relation to NAMA

Outside of the FOI (though I still intend pursuing this information through FOI, whether or not it is rejected) I received the following information:

Merrill Lynch (engaged by NTMA)

A number of reports setting out options for the Irish banking sector, including the treatment of impaired assets

PwC (engaged by Financial Regulator)

Various reports produced by PwC, including due diligence on covered institutions arising from the Government guarantee Scheme and recapitalisation programme (in cases with the input of Jones Lang LaSalle)

Arthur Cox

Various legal assessments of covered institutions arising from the Government guarantee Scheme and recapitalisation programme

Peter Bacon, Special Advisor to the Minister / NTMA

Evaluation of options for resolving property loan impairments and associated capital adequacy of Irish credit institutions: Proposal for a National Asset Management Agency and associated required policy initiatives

Rothschild (engaged by NTMA)

Various reports and inputs into the preparations for the establishment of NAMA

Central Bank & Financial Regulator Reports

Various reports produced within normal operating parameters as well as certain assessments of the impact of contingency proposals

HSBC (engaged by NTMA)

A number of reports produced for the interim NAMA and the Minister

NTMA is a curious entity. Back in May were were promised salary scales for NAMA. Have you seen any? The salary of Mr Somers, the head of the NTMA is also secret, apparently. I feel another FOI request coming on.

Some questions for Mr Lenihan

[cross posted to thestory.ie]

The Daily Mail and Sunday Times have commented already on Lenihan’s diary as published here last week. The Daily Mail concentrated on the meeting with Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone on November 12, 2008. The Sunday Times was more concerned with all the constituency work Mr Lenihan was doing when he perhaps should have been doing more important work.

For my own part I’ve been parsing the document to see what dates coincide. I’ve also drafted and sent two follow up FOIs on the basis of information gleaned from Mr Lenihan’s diary. There will likely be follow ups to those too.

However, the diary itself raises a number of questions that I will list here.

1) Why was a meeting with Sean FitzPatrick on September 18 not listed in the diary?

2) Were instructions given by the Minister to PwC, following the meeting with Mr FitzPatrick, to begin its inquiry into Anglo?

2) What was the purpose of the meeting with Pat McLoughlin of IPSO on September 25? Was this related to lobbying in relation to cheque usage and ATM charges?

3) On the night of the bank guarantee, September 25, who was present at the Department of the Taoiseach with Mr Lenihan and Mr Cowen? No names are listed in the diary, but names were reported in the media.

4) What was the purpose of the meeting with Independent News & Media chairman Brian Hillery on October 31, 2008?

5) What was the purpose of the meeting with Ivan Yates on November 5, 2008?

6) What was the purpose of the meeting with Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone on November 12, 2008, and with James McGuill of the Law Society the same day?

7) What was the purpose of the meeting with Michael Ryan and Paul Ryan of Merrill Lynch on November 13, 2008?

8 ) What was the purpose of the meeting with Andre Orcell of Merrill Lynch and then Lochlainn Quinn on November 24, 2008?

9) What was the purpose of the meeting with Sean FitzPatrick and Donal Drumm of Anglo, on December 16, and why does the diary entry merely list the meeting as “Anglo Irish” instead of their names?

10) Why is there no mention of any meetings with Patrick Neary, the then Financial Regulator, right up until his resignation on the night of Friday, January 9?

11) What was the purpose of the meeting with property developer Stephen Vernon of Green Property on January 30, and with Axel Wieandt of Hypo Real Estate on the same day?

12) What was the purpose of the meeting with Rick Lazio of JP Morgan Chase (who ran against Hilary Clinton in New York in 2000) on April 24?

Mary Coughlan's talking points

[cross posted to thestory.ie)

Last month I sent the following Freedom of Information request:

FOI Unit
Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment,
Kildare Street,
Dublin 2,

August 13, 2009

Request for access to records under the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003

Dear Sir/Madam,

In accordance with Section 7 of the above mentioned act, I wish to request access to the following records which I believe to be held by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (“the Department”):

1) The portfolio prepared by the Department in advance of Mary Coughlan (“the Minister”) becoming Enterprise Minister on May 7, 2008, in order to brief her on her new role.

2) All briefing notes prepared for the Minister for an interview on RTE Radio with Marian Finucane, in March 2009.

3) All correspondence between John McGuinness TD and the Minister between April 1, 2009 and May 15, 2009. By correspondence I am referring to all written communications such as email, letter, memo etc sent from Mr McGuinness to Ms Coughlan and from Ms Coughlan to Mr McGuinness or either of their respective offices.

My preferred form of access to these documents is in digital (PDF/doc) format.

If you decide to request further payment I would like to be provided with an itemised fees receipt outlining precisely why an additional cost is required.

Please find enclosed a cheque in the amount of €15 in respect of the fee for a request under the Acts. I look forward to hearing from you in the time period prescribed under the Acts.

Please contact me by email to discuss any problems which may occur with this request.

Call it a curiosity FOI. The portfolio in 1) was mentioned by Coughlan herself during the course of the interview. For some strange reason, it is not included or referred to in the reply. I will be following up 1) this week.

I am *always* curious to know what briefing notes are prepared for ministers in advance of radio interviews. After listening to her interview with Marian Finucane in March, I was curious to see what had been prepared. A recent falling out with Mr McGuinness also formed part of the request, but not much resulted from that, as I more or less expected. They don’t write down much these days.

But Ms Coughlan’s “speaking points” are interesting. I will be seeking more of these in the coming weeks from other departments. It gives us an insight into what spin is being used by ministers, what are the rehearsed talking points, and might tell us just how much (or how little) ministers know what they are talking about.

Mary Coughlan FOI

Included is a letter to John McGuinness and talking points for Marian Finucane interview. You can listen to that interview here (via realplayer).

Finance briefing documents

[cross posted to thestory.ie]

As part of my FOI request seeking the diary of Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, I also sought briefing documents used by himself and the Department’s Secretary General David Doyle. My request asked for:

1. The diary of the Minister for Finance (dates given)
2. Briefing notes prepared for the Minister for Finance for an appearance before the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, and
3. Briefing notes prepared for the Secretary General of the Department of Finance for his appearance before the PAC.

I have uploaded the full extent of my request, and their response.

Item two was refused outright.

Item three. Is largely granted but a number of records or parts of records have been refused. Furthermore, records relating to the President do not fall within the scope of the Act and accordingly, that part of the briefing material concerned with Vote 1 (President’s Establishment) has been excluded (S. 46 (d)).

In the document they outline what has been included.

I am uploading the released documents in parts, because it was over 200mb (800 pages) in size.

Part 1 is now available.

Morris Tribunal website FOI

[cross posted to thestory.ie]

I have blogged previously about my request for information concerning the Morris Tribunal website, and its disappearance earlier this year. I noticed that since my FOI was submitted, the Morris Tribunal website had reappeared. It seems this was as a result of my request.

To recap: I submitted the following request

Request for access to records under the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003
Dear Sir/Madam,

In accordance with Section 7 of the above mentioned Acts, I wish to request access to the following records which I believe to be held by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (”the Department”):

1) The contract between the Department and Fanore Software, relating to the development of the website for the Morris Tribunal.

2) A breakdown of fees relating to the contract.

3) All transcripts of Morris Tribunal public sittings.

4) An archived digital copy of the website (morristribunal.ie), which was made available to the Department by Fanore after the original website was removed.

My preferred form of access to these documents is in digital format. All transcripts of the Tribunal are held in digital format.

It is my understanding that the contract between Fanore Software and the Department has been concluded, as such the provision of the contract and a breakdown of fees should not give rise to any problems of commercial confidentiality, particularly given the unique nature of the contract and the fact that it is no longer active.

If you decide to request further payment I would like to be provided with an itemised fees receipt outlining precisely why an additional cost is required.

Please find enclosed a cheque in the amount of €15 in respect of the fee for a request under the Acts. I look forward to hearing from you in the time period prescribed.

Please contact me by email to discuss any problems which may occur with this request.

Sincerely

Gavin Sheridan

They have granted my request, and the results of my FOI are now available in PDF.

So what new information has come to light as a result?

We have learned the breakdown of costs relating to designing and hosting the website. It amounts to €14,474.80, for June 2002 to March 2009. Fanore software charged €1,452 a year for hosting, and charged €217.80 to register the domain. They also charged €729 to decommission the website, which has now been restored. In my personal opinion, as someone who hosts websites myself, these costs are excessive.

The Department has said: “Given the interest that still remains in the Tribunal, the Department has decided to reinstate the website. It may be accessed at its original address morristribunal.ie. Transcripts in relation to Days 429 to 686 are currently available on the site and arrangements are in hand to make the transcripts for the remaining days of the public hearings available.”

It should be noted that as of today, none of the transcripts are available, as the links to the transcripts are broken, or the transcripts themselves are missing. I will contact the Department and make them aware of this fact.

It should also be noted that the transcripts are held digitally in the obscure .ptx format, and not in normal formats such as PDF or TXT. This is a product of the transcription provider used by the Tribunal. I may draft another FOI to learn of the cost of these transcription services.

And as a result of this FOI request, the Department has committed itself to placing all transcripts of public sittings on the web, along with a centralised website for storing all reports of the Tribunal. No bad thing at all.