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Behind doors at KWETB

The Comptroller & Auditor General are looking into the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board's (KWETB) handling of development at St Conleth's College and elsewhere

All hell has broken loose at the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board (KWETB) after it emerged recently that the Department of Education is conducting an investigation into its financial governance and procurement procedures. The Department’s investigation was prompted by an ongoing audit conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) into expenditure at the KWETB.

On 4 October, the Department announced that it had commissioned, Richard Thorn, president emeritus of Sligo Institute of Technology to carry out an investigation into the performance by KWETB of its functions “particularly in relation to public procurement, usage and disposal of assets and propriety matters”. It said the action was “taken following issues raised in an audit by the Comptroller & Auditor General and subsequent correspondence between the Department and the KWETB”.

Until this dramatic development, intense efforts have been made to prevent details of these inquiries from getting into the public domain with a recent meeting of the KWETB held ‘in committee’ to exclude the prying eyes of the media and the public.

Councillors and other members of the board have been warned not to reveal the contents of what are believed to be serious questions regarding contracts awarded by the KWETB in recent years. The agency has an annual turnover of €116m which it uses for building, refurbishing and extending schools and other learning facilities in the two counties and has head offices in Wicklow Town and Naas, County Kildare, employing over 2,500 staff across the two counties.

Chief executive, Sean Ashe, is at the centre of a growing storm as he is ultimately responsible for the day-to-day running of the organisation which dispenses huge public monies for its range of capital spending, as well as education and training grants.

There are no allegations of impropriety concerning the board, its CEO, or any of its members or any of its dealings.

It is unclear what prompted the two external investigations but there has, over recent months, been an exchange of correspondence between the C&AG and the Department and Ashe and Ruttle, among others.

The correspondence and other matters under investigation by the C&AG raise serious matters of financial management and procurement which if, proven, could expose potential conflicts of interest in some projects funded through the KWETB. Among the projects subject to queries from C&AG and the Department is the construction work at St Conleth’s College, in Newbridge, County Kildare. The project is being led by Tullamore- based company, K&J Townmore Construction Ltd. The directors of Townmore, include Keith Screeney and Kevin Enright. Screeney was previously a director of Postbrook Ltd, a construction security company. The current directors of Kildare-based Postbrook are Ciarán Downey and Jennifer Ashe, a daughter of Sean Ashe, the CEO of KWETB.

It is also understood that the C&AG has inquired about expenditure on a number of other school projects, including at Manor Mills, Maynooth and Convey, and about the lease and sub-letting of a unit at a business park in Naas – all in Kildare. In Wicklow, there have been questions surrounding the cost of construction at a school in Arklow. Queries have also been raised about companies involved in the certification of some projects in relation to building standards and health and safety matters.

The correspondence and other matters under investigation by the C&AG raise serious matters of financial management and procurement which if, proven, could expose potential conflicts of interest in some projects funded through the KWETB.

Among other issues raised during the public session of the KWETB in Kildare on Wednesday 27th September was a suggestion that Ruttle may have sought independent legal advice in relation to the C&AG and Department investigations. After heated exchanges it was agreed to go into private session despite questions over the ethical and legal basis of such a decision.

Responding to the appointment of Thorn by the Department, the KWETB issued an internal memo to staff confirming that it had been “working closely with the Comptroller &Auditor General and the Department of Education and Skills over the last number of months concerning the 2015 audit of our operation. KWETB will fully cooperate and work with Mr Richard Thorn”.

Without detailing the precise procurement issues it intends to investigate, the Department confirmed that the C&AG had identified compliance and governance issues in relation to the procurement and delivery of various building projects. The C&AG had queried “the effectiveness of arrangements put in place, in the years 2015, 2016 and to date in 2017, by the delegation of functions or otherwise to ensure a conflict of interest did not occur with particular regard to procurement, asset disposal or leasing that concerned companies referred to in the C&AG Audit”, the Department said. Among the issues raised in the audit was “the usage of an ETB rented property by a company, the origin of this arrangement, the agreements reached, the conditions attached including rent level, payments in respect of works carried out, the timeliness of invoicing for rent and utilities due and receipt of same”.

Village understands that the rental of the property may raise serious conflict of interest issues for some KWETB staff. It questions the operation and use of vehicles including the sale of one particular car.

Thorn has also been asked to inquire into “the tender assessment process in relation to a drawdown contract awarded to a company referred to in the C&AG Audit and the sequence of events and the nature of the particular problems which gave rise to claims for additional payments on a building project referred to in the C&AG audit”. He will also examine and report on the purpose for, and the procurement and award of a contract to, an independent expert for a school-building project. It is envisaged that the investigation will be completed by March 2018.

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