THE CEO of Donegal County Council has said there is no place for “anyone involved in wrongdoing” within the local authority.
Mr Seamus Neely made the comments in a report issued to members at a special meeting of Donegal County Council last week in the wake of revelations in the RTE Investigates Programme on adherence to standards in public office”.
Mr Neely stated: “By its nature, a programme such as this will never be focusing on the good work done by Council staff and Councillors on a daily basis. I want to start therefore by recognising the work done by those people in local authorities throughout the country and who will have found the program deeply dispiriting.
“That said, the overall effect of the programme was immediate and shocking on all who watched it. It has caused understandable public anger and negative commentary on the planning systemfrom a wide circle of the public. However any wrongdoing in planning is committed by individuals who are accountable for their actions or inactions, as appropriate.
“There has been much public commentary this week on perceived inadequacies in the system of enforcement of laws applicable to ethical standards and the criminal law as to corruption etc. With calls made for amendment of such laws. However laws are currently in place for these matters. Despite what was seen on the programme, any action against individuals named on it should only follow full investigation of all relevant facts and due process which will involve anyone accused of wrongdoing being told what is alleged against him/her and being given the fullest opportunity to respond.
His statement went on to read: “The programme firstly dealt with alleged widespread inaccuracies and failures in the completion of annual declaration of interest required to be completed by members of the Oireachtas and Councillors. In the case of Councillors the requirement arises under Section 171 of the Local Government Act 2001 and failures to comply with same may constitute (i) breaches of the Ethical Framework contained in Part 15 of the Act and (ii) an offence.
“The programme highlighted the importance for everyone (required to make such annual declarations) that they (a) furnish the declaration and (b) ensure that it is accurate. It is important to appreciate that this is not just an issue of “filling in forms” as some have suggested this week. It is a legal requirement punishable up to criminal sanction and is there to ensure that specified private interests of a Councillor are open and transparent so that their public work can be viewed in that context.
“Councillors should also be mindful of the separate ongoing disclosure requirements on a Member under Section 177 of the Act where something is about to be discussed by the Council in relation to which that Member or a “connected person” (to him/her) has an interest and the separate requirements to withdraw from the meeting concerned for the duration of the particular discussion and to take no part in same and refrain from voting thereon. The responsibility for compliance and the consequences of not doing so (which may be breach(es) of the Ethical Framework or constitute an offence) are personal to the Member concerned.
“As part of the Council’s response to the broadcast, the Ethics Registrar (notwithstanding the normal annual notifications that issue) will send a special notice in accordance with Section 174(6) of the Act to everyone required to make such declarations within the Council bringing to their attention again the appropriate requirements of the Ethical Framework including relevant codes of conduct.
“More seriously the programme went on to feature interactions and meetings between an undercover RTE Reporter and three identified County Councillors (one of whom was Councillor John O’Donnell from this Council). The Reporter had pretended to represent a fictional company interested in making substantial investment in windfarm development. The footage appeared to show evidence that the three County Councillors may have been prepared to use their positions as Councillors for private gain in breach of the Local Authority Ethical Framework and possibly constituting criminal offences. If that was the case, it will only be established in any or all of the three cases after investigation and any Ethics hearings/prosecutions that may follow.
“As already stated it is important that due process and the natural justice rights of the County Councillors concerned be respected because that is their entitlement and so as not to prejudice any such investigations/hearings/prosecutions. To the extent that there was an implication from the programme that other Council Members could be lobbied/prevailed upon to support a wind farm development proposal at the behest of a named Councillor standing to gain financially from same, Members will no doubt wish to refute any such implication.
“They may also wish to comment generally on wrongful conduct of the type described. However as already stated so as to avoid the risk of prejudicing any subsequent Ethics hearings and/or prosecution, Members are advised and requested to refrain from making any comment or conclusion to the effect that any one or more of the three named County Councillors have breached the Ethical Framework and/or committed an offence(s).
“Such findings could only be made by the Standards in Public Office Commission or Court concerned and following on from an investigation of all relevant facts. In relation to Councillor O’Donnell specifically his letters of the 9th and 10th December previously circulated, refer. As appears, he strongly disputes that what was shown on the programme represents evidence of wrongdoing on his part. This underlines the need for the matter to be fully investigated and due process to be followed. Both I and the Cathaoirleach are particularly mindful of this given that the possible next step to the consideration of these matters by the Ethics Registrar is a referral to us jointly under Section 174(7) (e) of the 2001 Act for consideration and decision on further action.
“In conclusion I would request Members to join with me in stating that this Council is committed to ensuring the highest possible standards in delivering the planning service within the County, that there is no place for anyone involved in wrongdoing and that appropriate action will be taken against anyone so found after proper investigation and due process being followed under the relevant legislation and the general law.”