The crisis at the Kildare Wicklow Education and Training Board (KWETB) continues to deepen. The newly appointed investigator into alleged improper procurement and other practices at the agency recently heard claims concerning safety issues, potentially affecting hundreds of school children.
As reported in Village in October, the former president of Sligo Institute of Technology, Richard Thorn, was appointed to investigate a series of issues which arose following an investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) into spending and procurement at the KWETB.
Among the concerns raised by the C&AG were a number related to construction projects, including large school buildings and extensions, rental properties, and the use of vehicles.
The KWETB spends around €116m annually and is responsible for the operation of many primary and secondary schools across the two counties as well as providing further education and training courses. Announcing the terms of reference for the Thorn inquiry, education minister, Richard Bruton, said in late September that it was to examine “public procurement, usage and disposal of assets and propriety matters” at the KWETB.
Thorn was asked to identify any “lacunae, inconsistencies, or insufficient clarity” in the responses by the board to questions posed by the C&AG, including potential conflicts of interest in procurement, asset disposal or leasing that concerned companies identified in the audit. Soon after Thorn’s appointment, the chief executive of the KWETB, Seamus Ashe, announced his retirement from the position while questions were raised about the role of a company in which his daughter, Jennifer, is a director. The company rented a property in Naas from the board in recent years.
The rental arrangements are among the issues mentioned in Thorn’s terms of reference.
The crisis deepened in early November after Thorn was informed of serious questions raised about the quality of some of the construction work carried out in at least one school in County Kildare. It became the subject of a hastily convened meeting involving senior government officials and some building and other companies at the Department of Education on 6 November last.
This followed a High Court hearing the previous Friday where one builder, Townmore Ltd, sought to force a company, Drumderry Ltd, which provided materials used in the construction of an extension at St Conleth’s secondary school in Newbridge, County Kildare to certify the quality of the work done. Drumderry supplied concrete for walls, beams, columns, and floors to Townmore but refused to issue certificates stating that the work had been carried out to the accepted standards. Among other complaints, Sam Deacon of Drumderry has raised questions about how the headed notepaper of his company was used to issue certificates without his knowledge, in recent years. As Village went to press, the High Court action had been adjourned for a week.
Over recent weeks, issues were also raised about the integrity of, and procedures involved in, recent meetings of the board of the KWETB to discuss the growing controversy. Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy, formerly of Fine Gael, opposed a decision by the chair and vice chair of the board, Councillors Brendan Weld and Jim Ruttle, respectively, to hold meetings in private on at least two occasions. Councillor McLoughlin Healy has publicly asked for Weld, Ruttle and the corporate services manager of the KWETB, Mary Dillon, to step down from their positions pending completion of the Thorn investigation.
Following a board meeting on 11 October she said in a press statement:
“I have serious concerns that a false narrative is being constructed in relation to the board’s response to the investigation of the KWETB by the Department of Education. As a board member I am concerned that despite repeated requests we have not been provided with all of the legal advice that has been made available to the Chair and the Vice-Chair for and on behalf of the board… I have also had access to a document which is evidence of a serious and malicious misrepresentation of a private meeting (of the board) called by the Chair and the Vice Chair on September 19th. Although the meeting did not go ahead because the Chair and Vice Chair had acted outside their powers by calling a secret meeting, that is not what is documented in the memo”.
She continued: “The Minutes Secretary is also the Corporate Affairs Manager and has a senior management role in relation to one of the main areas being investigated. Chairs have signing authority relating to the area in question. We as a board have a duty to ensure that not only conflicts of interest but any perceptions of conflicts of interest are managed. Let me be clear: I am casting no aspersions on the Corporate Affairs Manager, the Chair or the Vice Chair. It is in everyone’s best interests including theirs to ask that they be relieved of their duties around any discussion in relation to the investigation, given the potential for conflicts of interest”.
The allegations of inadequate certification of construction work at schools and other public buildings have also dragged others into the controversy. These embrace some involved in providing architectural and engineering consultancy to the building companies involved.