Lawyers repeatedly told board members to suspend chief executive in wake of Comptroller and Auditor General report.
By Barry J Whyte
‘Did the three most senior members of embattled Kildare Wicklow Education and Training Board (KWETB) act promptly enough on legal advice in the aftermath of a Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) audit of millons in school building contracts?
That’s the question to be answered by the embattled board, with the Garda Economics Crimes Unit currently investigating alleged payments in excess of €4 millon of public money to companies associated with the chief executive Sean Ashe’s son Michael.
Legal documents seen by The Sunday Business Post show that in the spring of 2017 three of the most senior members of the board, the hen chair Jim Ruttle, vice-chair Brendan Weld, and audit committee chair Tony Lenehan , were given a raft of legal advice by a legal firm they had engaged after being informed of the C&AG audit.
The three men had engaged the firm after C&AG had raised several questions about Ashe’s handling of the ETB’s tendering process for public contracts about his declarations of interest for 2016, 2015 and 2014, and about his awarding of tenders to company’s controlled by Ashe’s son.
The new chairman of KWETB Noel Merrick told The Sunday Business Post that “the issue of that legal advice is a matter that is currently under scrutiny by the board” and that it has to decide whether there was “an unacceptable delay” in passing on the legal advice to the wider board.
An internal ETB review of the legal advice, which The Sunday Business Post has also seen , showed that the three men first heard of the C&AG audit on July 13, 2017 and got formal advice from the lawyers on July 28, before telling the full board on September 27.
That internal review was carried out by a number of the members of the wider board, including Sinn Fein councillor Reada Cronin, who told The Sunday Business Post that she didn’t see the substance of the legal advice until the spring of 2018.
According to Cronin, she was not happy about this as “We’re meant to be the voice of the public as members of Kildare Wicklow ETB.”
Cronin’s fellow Kildare County Councillor and KWETB board member Fiona McLoughlin Healy agreed, describing it as “deeply frustrating” that the advice was not passed on when it was first received.
According to Merrick, the full legal file has now been made available to the rest of the board and that its members have been ‘encouraged’ to read it.
“The members involved (ie the former Chair, the former ViceChair and the then Chair of the Audit Committee) have been asked for their responses to questions relating to the alleged delay, ” he said , adding that it was a matter for the board to decide at its next meeting.
Meanwhile , the correspondence also shows that the lawyers suggested several courses of action that the three senior board members could take.
The lawyers also pointed out that ” the Comptroller and Auditor General …indicated to you that it was of the view that it would be difficult for them to get information they needed so long as the chief executive as in situ.”
On several occasions in the correspondence , the lawyers made it clear that not only did the board have a responsibility to conduct an investigation , but that it could do so without interfering with Ashe’s right to due process.
Brendan Weld , when contacted by The Sunday Business Post, declined to comment on the grounds that there was an ongoing Garda investigation and that he didn’t want to jeopardize it.
Neither Lenehan nor Ruttle could be reached despite phone calls, texts and emails.
Ashe resigned for personal reasons in December 2017. He told this newspaper that he never saw the substance of the legal advice while he was chief executive.
Ashe has since been replaced as chief executive by Deirdre Keyes . Ruttle and Weld, though they have since been replaced as chair and vice chair after their terms ended, are still board members of the KWETB.
Lenehan , whose term as chair of the audit committee also ended , has since left the board entirely.