TD/Senate expenses 1998 – 2008

[cross posted from thestory.ie]

No, we don’t have the expenses, yet anyway. But we have started the process. In August I sent the following FOI request to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (the crowd who manage the Dail and Seanad):

August 17, 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 Acts, I wish to request access to the following records which I believe to be held by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (“the Commission”):

1) A breakdown of all expenses claimed by TDs broken down by TD and by the following calendar years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997

2) A breakdown of all expenses claimed by Senators broken down by Senator and by the following calendar years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997

3) The guidelines provided to TDs and Senators on how they can claim expenses. A guide as to what they are and are not allowed to claim and what documentation is required in order to claim expenses.

My preferred form of access to these documents is in digital format.

Given that much if not all of this information has already been found and produced I do not anticipate that any exemptions will be required nor that any further costs other than the standard €15 charge will be incurred.

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.

Sincerely,

Gavin Sheridan

I since received a phonecall, outlining that data from 2005 on (since it has been digitised), would be made available in September. So the other part of my FOI refers to information between 1997 (1998 really since the FOI Act does not cover 1997) and 2004, or stuff that has not been digitised and is sitting in boxes somewhere. Today I received an estimated cost for search and retrieval of this information.

There are two newsworthy snippets in the letter. First, the bad news:

“After consideration and consultations, I estimate that the services of staff members totalling 110 hours will be the minimum required to efficiently complete the search and retrieval work on the balance of your request for the years 1998 to 2004… The prescribed amount chargeable for each such hour is €20.95 resulting in a fee of €2,304. Additionally, it is estimated that a total of 3,200 pages containing the records for the period from 1998 to 2004 will have to be photocopied, resulting in a further charge of €136.00 with the overall fee amounting to €2,440.”

Yes, you read that right.

Second, the not so bad news:

“… there is a gap in in the hard copy records in respect of the period from January 1, 1998 to March 31, 1998. In addition, it is unclear that the final released data is available for the following periods as the material has not, as yet, been located:

April 1999 to October 1999
June 2000 to June 2001
July 2002 to June 2003

If you require retrieval of these records it is likely to involve a substantial number of man-hours and a corresponding increase in the fee to be charge. I would be grateful if you would let me know if you require those records.”

Why is this not so bad? Well the news aspect firstly. The Houses of the Oireachtas have so far been unable to locate expenses data for a combined period of 29 months. Eh? Not alone that, they want to charge me to find this information. Information that really should be in the public domain anyway. But we have to deal with the system we have…

Why do we want this data? Because we want a full historical account of all expenses claimed on record, for all national public representatives. It is also data that would be integrated into KildareStreet.

I’m gonna throw this question at our readers, what do you think we should do?

I have a few ideas on how to proceed, but I’d like to get some feedback first.

The John O'Donoghue files (Part 10 – 'Joxer' goes to Stuttgart)

John O’Donoghue goes to Stuttgart.

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Previously:
JOD Part 1 (India)
JOD Part 2 (Birmingham)
JOD Part 3 (Berlin)
JOD Part 4 (London)
JOD Part 5 (London)
JOD Part 6 (Venice)
JOD Part 7 (Manchester)
JOD Part 8 (New York)
JOD Part 9 (Turin)

The missing €270,000

Here’s a question for everyone:

Add these numbers and what do you get?

€39.409m
€17.548m
€22.742m
€20.359m
€5.777m
€8.303m

Answer?

€114.138m.

But according to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission document, it’s not. Here is a screen grab from the document, for 2007 spending:

Screen shot 2009-09-06 at 01.46.02

€113.868 million?

That leaves one question. Where is the other €270,000?

I’ve tabulated the document into a public spreadsheet.

Friday night newsdumps and Bord Snip

So during the buildup to Brian Cowen appearing on the Late Late Show, the Department of Finance went and published a huge amount of information onto their website, the Special Group Background Documents, submitted by departments etc to Bord Snip, to outline how they proposed cutting back.

It is worth noting that many or all of these documents were actively being sought by journalists through FOI requests, and in the normal course of events, would have been gradually released with redactions. But the Department, on a Friday evening, dumped the entire lot:

To facilitate the work of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, the heads of the various Government Departments/Public Bodies prepared initial evaluation papers detailing their areas of expenditure. The Department of Finance also prepared separate evaluation papers on each area, as well as some papers evaluating a range of cross-cutting issues. These documents are set out below for reference; with a limited number of redactions in some cases in line with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003 (please click here for more information in this regard).

There are a huge range of documents, including:

Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Community, Galetacht and Rural Affairs
Comptroller and Aiditor General
Education (Part 1)
Education (Part 2)
Environment , heritage and Local Government
Foreign Affairs
Houses of the Oireachtas
Justice, Equality and Law Reform
Office of Public Works
Office of the Appeals Commissioner
Public Appointments Service
Social and Family Affairs
State Laboratory
Valuation office

I was particularly interested in the Houses of the Oireachtas. It outlines spending by the House over the past six years, and gives a breakdown on how much it costs the taxpayer to pay for the Dail and Seanad.

I’ve uploaded it to Scribd here.

Under Main Areas of Spending, it is interesting to see just how much spending on our TDs and Senators has increased. For example:

Administration in 2004: €26.4 million.
Administration in 2009 (est): €59.5 million.

A 125% increase in just six years.

Or:

Sec Asst Salaries in 2004: €8.9 million
Sec Asst Salaries in 2009 (est): €18.7 million

A 110% increase in just six years.

But staff numbers are also interesting:

In 2004 there were 328 civil servants, 51 other public servants and 209 political staff for members (TDs, Senators).
In 2009 there are 425 civil servants (30% rise), 65 other public servants and 350 political staff for members (67% rise).

The total figures for maintaining our parliamentary democracy are:

From January 2004 to December 2009 (est): €654 million

Of which:

Members’ salaries: €134.955 million
Sec Assistant salaries: €98.529 million
Members’ travel: €35 million
Members’ expenses: €50.374 million

So let me get this right.

In six years it cost us more than half a billion euros to pay for Dail Eireann and the Senate?

But how much was proposed to be cut?

€6.5m in 2009 and in the three years from 2010 to 2012, the Houses of the Oireachtas have proposed cutting €11.8m (or about €4m per year out of total expenditure of about €137m per year).

That’s a 3% cut folks.

Chart:

The John O'Donoghue files (Part 9 – Turin)

The minister heads to Turin with his wife, his private secretary, secretary general Philip Furlong and assistant secretary general Con Haugh. They use the Ministerial Air Transport Service (MATS) to do it.

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Previously:
JOD Part 1 (India)
JOD Part 2 (Birmingham)
JOD Part 3 (Berlin)
JOD Part 4 (London)
JOD Part 5 (London)
JOD Part 6 (Venice)
JOD Part 7 (Manchester)
JOD Part 8 (New York)

The Morris Tribunal website

About 8 weeks ago I went looking for a particular transcript of Morris Tribunal evidence, and to my horror discovered that the entire website had been removed. The transcripts are held digitally in an obscure format, for which you need special software (another story in itself), and they were nowhere to be found on the internet. The reports of the Tribunal, all eight of them, were missing too. I went searching on the Department of Justice website, finding the reports only via a site wide search.

This is wrong, I said to myself. Very wrong. If we are to learn any lessons from the Morris Tribunal, all data relating to it must be available online, all transcripts, all rulings, all reports. And they should be held in open formats, or even multiple formats. Taking them down would mean the public can learn nothing of the process or conclusions of the Tribunal. And the Tribunal was not cheap, and the taxpayer footed the bill. The least we can expect is that everything relating to the Tribunal be made public (the same should apply to all Tribunals).

I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I sent an email to the Department of Justice, seeking the transcripts, and asking why the website was removed. I mailed the press office and got the following reply:

The Morris Tribunal has been wound down due to completion of its work. All its reports are available on the Department’s website at www.justice.ie. We are not aware that transcripts of the Tribunal’s proceedings were ever available.

Yes, apparently there never were transcripts. Even though I had read dozens of them online over the years. I can imagine them saying, since the Tribunal is finished, let’s add some more reports to the Government’s catalogue of reports, and let them collect digital dust.

I replied that there certainly were transcripts, since I had read them. I also wanted to know why there was no dedicated part of the Department’s website for the Morris Tribunal (easily done, just copy the old website and put it at justice.ie/morris). The Department replied:

There is not now, and never has been, a dedicated part of the Department’s website for the Morris Tribunal – the reports were located by doing a search in the search bar. The Tribunal had its own website where all their own stuff was published – I understand the website went on for a while after the Tribunal ended but that it has now ceased altogether.

As there was an absolute huge number of transcripts involved, I understand that if you can identify a specific transcript that you require, the officials here in the Dept will endeavour to track it down for you.

Wow. The Department would deign to give me selected transcripts from a public tribunal, funded by the taxpayer, that examined massive Garda corruption. I felt so…honoured that I could request documents, that as a citizen, I am entitled to see. Not alone that, but the officials would endeavour, which I guess means they may or may not get me the transcripts. Consider me humbled.

Rather that continuing with this line of inquiry, which was clearly getting me nowhere, I contacted Fanore software, the people who were contracted to build the Morris website (and others) for the Department. They were helpful, but since the DoJ were their clients, there was little they could do. Fair enough.

Time to step it up a bit. I wrote and sent the following Freedom of Information request to the Department:

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

I did receive an acknowledgment of my FOI request, but have not yet received the results.

But as of today, August 26, 16 days after my FOI was submitted, and about 8 weeks after I noticed the website was gone, Morristribunal.ie is back. What a curious turn of events.

Gavin 1: Government 0

The John O'Donoghue files (Part 8 – New York)

The minister goes to the Big Apple with his wife, private secretary, the secretary general of the department, a Mrs Furlong and Paul O’Toole.

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Previously:
JOD Part 1 (India)
JOD Part 2 (Birmingham)
JOD Part 3 (Berlin)
JOD Part 4 (London)
JOD Part 5 (London)
JOD Part 6 (Venice)
JOD Part 7 (Manchester)

The John O'Donoghue files (Part 7 – Manchester)

The Minister, his wife and his private secretary fly to Manchester, then on to Cheltenham Races via Stratford on Avon. This is after they attend the Ireland vs Scotland rugby match at Landsdowne Road. They spend St Patrick’s Day at the races. Money is also paid for their driver to overnight.

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Previously:
JOD Part 1 (India)
JOD Part 2 (Birmingham)
JOD Part 3 (Berlin)
JOD Part 4 (London)
JOD Part 5 (London)
JOD Part 6 (Venice)

The John O'Donoghue files (Part 6 – Venice)

Then Tourism Minister John O’Donoghue, his private secretary Therese O’Connor and his wife Kate Ann, jet off to Venice. Highlights:

Government Learjet from Baldonnel to Venice, and back to Farranfore.
The infamous watertaxi receipts…

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Previously:
JOD Part 1 (India)
JOD Part 2 (Birmingham)
JOD Part 3 (Berlin)
JOD Part 4 (London)
JOD Part 5 (London)

FOIs, spin and the media

It might be useful to make a stab at a chronology of events. It would certainly help to understand the news cycles at work.

Sunday July 26, 2009. Ken Foxe in the Tribune publishes details of expenses he had obtained via Freedom of Information requests.

Sunday August 2, 2009. Ken Foxe publishes more details of trips.

Sunday August 9, 2009. Ken publishes more details.

His stories were important, well researched, and well written. And it is important to say, he did the legwork, and deserves the credit. But other news organisations did not pick up the stories in any significant way. To me, it seems to be a symptom of Sunday newspapers and weekend news cycles generally. The government knows how these cycles work and cynically uses them.

In mid-August I sent an FOI request to the department, seeking all the information they had released to Ken. I wanted them in digital format so that I could publish them online, but if necessary I would scan hard copies. The department replied that since so many had requested the documents that they would photocopy a set for me and send them outside of the terms of the FOI acts, for free.

I replied that I would be willing to accept the documents outside the FOI Act, but under two conditions: a) I had a timeframe by which I would receive the documents, and b) The Department would guarantee in writing that the documents they were sending me outside of the terms of the Act, were the same set of documents I would have received if I had requested them under the Act. I got that guarantee.

Sunday, August 16, 2000: Ken Foxe publishes more details of expenses.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009: I received the documents in the post, picked one folder, and started scanning. I uploaded the documents to a third party document sharing website (Scribd).

This outsources server issues, and allows for downloads and embedding of documents in other websites. It also means my site is not the sole place the documents are available. After posting the documents online, I start a thread on politics.ie, letting everyone know they are available to the crowd.

Within an hour speculation surrounded the identity of the limousine company, and the seemingly large amounts of money spent on hiring cars. That led to members of politics.ie scouring the internet for information, and some others recounting personal knowledge of the director of the company and his family connections. Comments on the blog post also speculate on these issues.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009: I uploaded more documents, and again place them on a politics.ie thread. This led to further speculation about Cartel, and the money spent on hiring their services. Users started a new thread, devoted to the FF connection to the limousine company, leading to a 25 page thread. More details are discovered and shared.

In response to the politics.ie thread, I wrote a blog post adding some more details, and laying out names and addresses. I received a call from Harry McGee of the Irish Times asking about my uploading of FOIs to my blog.

On the same day, the Irish Independent leads with a story by Michael Brennan, that there will be a clampdown on ministerial spending abroad, and on perks.

Thursday, August 20, 2009: I uploaded another set of documents. The Irish Times has a story on Mary O’Rourke’s opinion on John O’Donoghue’s expenses, which is now firmly back on the news agenda. In the same story I am quoted, and the name of my blog is mentioned. Over those first three days there were about 7,500 unique visitors to the blog, with over 10,000 pages viewed.

Friday, August 21, 2009: I uploaded another set of documents. The Irish Daily Mail led with a story relating to the speculation surrounding the limousine company, its connections to Fianna Fail, and the sums involved – highlighted by politics.ie users and myself on August 18 and 19.

Saturday, August 22: 2009: The Irish Times follows the Daily Mail lead, reporting on the link between Mr Gallagher and Fianna Fail, and on the amounts involved. For the second time in a week, the Irish Independent led with a story on ministerial expenses. Charlie Weston writes:

“TDs and senators face having their generous expenses taxed under a radical shake-up. The report of the Commission on Taxation recommends that members of the Oireachtas should have their expenses taxed in the same way as ordinary workers. Many TDs submit claims of up to €90,000 a year in largely untaxed expenses, according to recent revelations.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009: The Sunday Times and the Sunday Tribune cover the limousine angles, with the Sunday Times directly mentioning me, and the owner of the limousine company, Terry Gallagher, directly referring to my blog. The Sunday Tribune story relates to some comments on politics.ie around the cost of a very short jaunt between Heathrow terminals (€472).

The big thesis at work here is this: Crowdsourcing can work. When there are large volumes of documents to be read and parsed, it makes little sense for 1 or 2 people to work on it, when hundreds or thousands can help out. Hundreds of people searching on Google, asking friends about people, already having knowledge of particular people – digging into the data, sharing it, commenting on it, collaborating online, will lead to a more thorough examination than one journalist can perform. Yes we do need filters, but it should go hand in hand with the publication of all FOIs for further distillation, perhaps subsequent to publication of stories.

What interests me more though are the stories relating to clampdowns on expenses that led Irish Independent coverage on two days in one week. During 4-5 days of news surrounding John O’Donoghue, generated largely by posting the original documents online, two separate stories were written that could be described as government spin, including one based on a deliberate leak from the upcoming Taxation report.

I am not accussing the journalists in question of anything untoward, I am merely observing the effectiveness of government PR/propaganda. This effectiveness is demonstrated in radio interviews, such as Conor Lenihan on Radio 1 yesterday morning, where he could refer directly to these news stories as evidence that “those days are over” etc. The marrying of government spin with ministers on air attempting to justify the profilagacy of Mr O’Donoghue is fascinating to observe. The talking points alone are professionally done:

“We were richer back then”
“Those days are over, did you see that story about clampdowns on ministerial expenses?”
“The department decided on costs”
“It wasn’t the Minister’s fault”
“Ministers should stay in nice places when abroad, they are representing the country”

…among others. All of them nonsense, but all of them serving to distract from the core issues, which of course is their intention. Ministers are responsible for what they spend. They are grown adults in charge of departments, trying to blame everybody else.

There is one issue and one issue alone. Servants of the people are wasting taxpayers’ money. John O’Donoghue wasted vast amounts of money, not just on limos, on a whole range of things, from five-star hotels to government jet flights. That is the only point. Mr O’Donoghue should resign forthwith.