RTÉ files suggest bid to ‘circumvent’ regulations, report finds as Taoiseach defends Minister’s handling of scandals

PAC concludes there was an attempt to ‘conceal’ RTÉ’s commitment to underwrite undisclosed payments to Ryan Tubridy

Records of a key moment in the Ryan Tubridy saga suggest an attempt by RTÉ to “circumvent” regulations and “conceal” its underwriting of the star presenter’s contract, a report by the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has concluded.

The report, based on marathon hearings and reams of documentation supplied since last summer when the scandal broke, concludes that a note taken of a meeting which approved undisclosed payments to Mr Tubridy “suggests an attempt circumvent normal regulations and procedures on the part of RTÉ”.

It concludes that a summary of the note which was supplied to the committee suggests an attempt to “conceal the purported underwriting of the contract and payments to Mr Tubridy, and appears to refer to a commitment by then director general Dee Forbes to guarantee certain payments to Mr Tubridy”.

In the Dáil, there was renewed political pressure on Minister for Media Catherine Martin after former RTÉ chairwoman Siún Ní Raghallaigh criticised the Minister’s “hands-off” approach to the RTÉ scandals.

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Ms Martin will not answer questions on RTÉ in the Dáil this week. Defending the Minister’s level of engagement on RTÉ, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ms Martin met Ms Ní Raghallaigh 11 times over the past nine months.

Mr Varadkar said the minister was willing to engage and appear before the Oireachtas Media Committee again but would “like that to be in the context of the final reports being published”.

“That can be done in a matter of the next few weeks,” he said.

The Taoiseach also said Ms Martin had provided some phone call and meeting notes which the committee had requested.

Opposition TDs called for Ms Martin to answer questions in the Dáil this week, ahead of the St Patrick’s Day recess next week. However, a vote on this week’s Dáil business was agreed to, which did not include a questions and answers slot with Ms Martin.

Among the main findings of the PAC report was that RTÉ may have “deliberately misrepresented” the list of earnings of its 10 most highly paid presenters. It further says that the failure of former RTÉ chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe to appear before the committee “frustrated” its work.

The report also criticises the accounting practices in place at RTÉ given that it published the earnings of its 10 most highly paid presenters with a significant understatement of earnings.

It concludes: “In light of the evidence presented to committee, any objective assessment could not discount the possibility that the figures were deliberately misrepresented by RTÉ.”

Regarding Ms O’Keeffe, who left RTÉ on an exit package worth €450,000, the committee criticises the issuing of letters which incorrectly stated that the package was given executive board approval and questions why a business case was not brought forward around the exit.

“The committee is of the belief that Ms O’Keeffe’s refusal to attend frustrated to the work of the committee in resolving certain conflicts of evidence presented to it,” it concludes.

It says the underreporting of Mr Tubridy’s earnings by €120,000 between 2017 and 2019 “seriously undermined public trust”. Regarding the barter account which was used to administer some payments to Mr Tubridy, it finds the manner in which it was used, outside the normal system of controls “gave rise to significant risks”.

It concludes that the barter account was used in a way that matches the definition of a “slush fund”, supplied in the report as a “reserve of money held secretly by a company that has no accountability for its use”. It also concludes that the evidence it has seen supports a contention at the committee by former RTÉ chair Siún Ní Raghallaigh that its use to process two payments to Mr Tubridy was “an act designed to deceive”.

Some of the recommendations of the report had already been leaked before Monday, including its main finding that the Government should bring RTÉ back under the statutory remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The report also recommends that no “side deals” akin to that agreed for Mr Tubridy’s 2020-2025 contract be allowed and that the broadcaster introduce a written policy in relation to promotional work and use of social media, and another written policy in relation to negotiations with presenters and their representatives.

It recommends RTÉ ensures that the terms of any future severance agreements with staff do not contain any confidentiality clauses and include a clause that former employees co-operate with any internal or external inquiries or investigations, including Oireachtas committees.

It also recommends that RTÉ publishes the salary received by each member of staff at the broadcaster earning more than €150,000 in its annual financial statement, and that it reports the exact amounts paid out to former members of staff who received a lump sum of more than €150,000 when leaving the broadcaster.

This recommendation comes after both PAC and the Oireachtas Media Committee failed to secure sessions with former director general Dee Forbes regarding her role in the contract and the wider crisis, as she is unwell. RTÉ director of content Jim Jennings has also not appeared due to ill health.

The report finds that the Audit and Risk Committee at RTÉ is sufficiently equipped to ensure it can effectively monitor and audit internally, report within RTÉ and make recommendations to improve financial controls at the broadcaster. The PAC is also seeking an update by June of this year on the investigation by the Department of Social Protection on the issue of so-called bogus self employment at the broadcaster, which RTÉ has allocated a multimillion euro sum to provide for.

On the issue of bogus self employment, the committee’s report judges that RTÉ has “badly mismanaged” the classification of a significant number of workers for PRSI purposes and raises further concerns that, given the low number of individuals covered by an existing settlement, that further liabilities to Revenue from RTÉ could amount to millions of euros.

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