Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe has confirmed in the Dáil that there was a breach of election rules after Fine Gael in Dublin Central "unknowingly" received a corporate donation above the legal limit in 2020.
Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, Mr Donohoe also told members that his 2020 General Election expenses form has been updated to reflect a spend of €864 for labour and €392.20 for vehicles that were used to put up election posters during the period of the election campaign.
In total he has amended his 2020 election expenses return form to reflect an additional spend of €1,256.20.
Mr Donohoe said that the donation above the legal limit, of €434.20, was made in the form of the use of vehicles, the commercial value of which exceeded the maximum allowable donation limit of €200.
Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe has revealed that an unauthorised corporate donation of €434.20 to Fine Gael Dublin Central was uncovered following a review of his 2020 General Election Campaign | https://t.co/dkmPawy8nB pic.twitter.com/REvnYfC4cm— RTÉ News (@rtenews) January 24, 2023
Mr Donohoe said that the Standards in Public Office Commission has been notified and that the amount received in excess of the allowable limit, €234.20, has been returned.
He said that it remains the case that when SIPO returns were made in 2016 and 2020, he believed they were accurate.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he believes Mr Donohoe's explanations, saying he amended his returns which is provided for in the legislation in the event new information is discovered. He added that the matter should ultimately be decided by SIPO, which should be allowed to do its work.
Mr Donohoe issued a further apology in the Dáil for the disruption caused in relation to controversy around his election expenses.
In a second such statement to the Dáíl, and third overall, Mr Donohoe said he apologised for the distraction caused to the Government as a result of the issue, adding that he has "always sought to hold myself, and those around me, to the highest standards".
The controversy arose after it was confirmed that the businessman Michael Stone had made a donation of six men and a van to erect posters for Mr Donohoe.
The value of that donation, which was estimated by Fine Gael at €1,057, should have been included in Mr Donohoe's declaration for general election 2016 but was absent – prompting Mr Donohoe to apologise in the Dáil last week.
He has amended his return to the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO), which is assessing a complaint on the issue.
"The details of the support provided are outlined in the statement from Mr. Stone, which he issued earlier today. I was unaware of any of these details prior to Wednesday night," Mr Donohoe said.
"All activity, it was understood, was carried out by volunteers on a voluntary basis"
He added: "Despite my best efforts in recent weeks to ensure the fullest account of the support given in both 2016 and 2020 was accurate, an amendment will now be made to my 2020 General Election expenses form to reflect the new information to the amount of €864 for labour and €392.20 for vehicles for support received during the election period.
"In addition, I am now aware that an unauthorised corporate donation of €434.20 was unknowingly received by Fine Gael Dublin Central. This was in the form of the use of vehicles, the commercial value of which exceeded the maximum allowable donation limit of €200.
"SIPO have been notified of this breach and €234.20, the amount received in excess of the allowable limit, will be refunded to the Designer Group."
Mr Donohoe said an amendment will also be made this week to his election expenses return to the value of €1256.20, for the work carried out and use of the vans up to polling day.
He added: "It remains the case that when SIPO returns were being submitted in both in 2016 and 2020, they were believed to be accurate, as any postering done throughout the campaigns was not paid for by Fine Gael Dublin Central nor by me.
"All activity, it was understood, was carried out by volunteers on a voluntary basis."
Speaking later on RTÉ's Six One, Mr Donohoe said he accepted it was "not a good look" when the minister responsible for ethics and electoral legislation is found to have broken the rules.
"I am really disappointed with what has happened here, I'm really disappointed with a mistake that I made that has contributed to this public debate.
"The key mistake that I made being that in two different elections I assumed that all my public posters were put up on a voluntary basis - because nearly all of my electoral activity happens in a voluntary way.
"I didn't ask, I didn't check, I wish I had, and that has now created this public debate regarding hundreds of euro at each election.
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In response to Mr Donohoe in the Dáil, Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty repeated the charge he made last week that Mr Donohoe had been "caught out".
He asked who, in 2017, made the allegation relating to the use of the company van belonging to Michael Stone.
Mr Donohoe said the term "donation" referred to an "inadvertent corporate donation" and also to "the commercial value that is attributed to posters that I did not know were being paid for", the latter of which Mr Doherty had repeatedly referred.
Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty repeated the charge he made last week that Minister Donohoe has been "caught out". Minister Donohoe said the term "donation" refers to an "inadvertent corporate donation" that he has now declared | https://t.co/dkmPawy8nB pic.twitter.com/t8dLhQ20AW— RTÉ News (@rtenews) January 24, 2023
A journalist whose identity he has not established made the allegation in 2017, the minister said.
Mr Doherty asked who carried out the subsequent review into expenditure, with Mr Donohoe replying that it was those in his constituency office and his campaign.
"I assumed they were all put up on a voluntary basis", he said of the posters, adding that in 2017, he should have amended his electoral expenses. He has "not been able to determine" how many posters were put up.
Labour's Ged Nash said that the controversy was distracting the Dáil from serious business and accused Mr Donohoe of breaking electoral rules "on two occasions in 2016 and 2020".
He rejected assertions from Mr Donohoe that services provided to the election campaign were provided to the party, rather than the candidate.
Mr Nash asked what member of Fine Gael arranged for the "help" that Mr Stone provided, adding that only an election agent can legally authorise expenditure.
Mr Donohoe said that Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam received the postering, adding that any money received went into the Fine Gael Dublin Central account, something that Mr Nash said was a "fiction".
Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said that Mr Donohoe had "made a complete hames" of his response to the issue, adding that ignorance of the law was no defence.
Mr Donohoe responded that "proportionality" was required, adding that he was often out of his constituency as the election was a national contest.
Responding to questions from Solidarity/People Before Profit's Paul Murphy, Mr Donohoe said that Mr Stone did not provide services to Fine Gael during the local and European elections
Mr Murphy pointed out that €334 worth of Fine Gael tickets were sold by Mr Donohoe to Mr Stone in 2020 and deduced that by adding the cost of vehicles and labour that €1,740 worth of money was given to the party by Mr Stone in 2020.
Mr Donohoe said that the money was given to different sections of the party, as services were provided to Fine Gael Dublin Central and tickets were sold on behalf of the Fine Gael National Party.
He added that it remained the case that these payments did not have to be declared as donations.
Earlier today, Mr Stone said in a statement that he provided assistance totalling €1,406.20 to help with postering during Mr Donohoe's 2020 general election campaign.
Mr Stone said that the minister was unaware of this and he was only told about it last Wednesday after the matter was mentioned in the Dáil.
Mr Stone said he personally paid for six people, working in three pairs, to help with postering, on five dates across the campaign period, before and after polling day, and at a cost of €972.
He said he also arranged to supply some of these people with vans for the period they worked, which had a commercial value of €434.20.
Mr Stone said Mr Donohoe asked him in December whether he had provided help with the 2020 campaign and said he "mistakenly believed that I had not and told him so. On Wednesday, 18th January, I again confirmed to him my mistaken recollection".
He said when he heard later that day that the 2020 election had been raised in the Dáil, "I had the matter re-checked and discovered that my recollection was wrong and that, in fact, similar assistance had been given with postering in the 2020 election. I immediately contacted Paschal and told him so and apologised for my mistake.
"The help given in 2020 was arranged through a member of the Fine Gael team in Dublin Central and I had not discussed it with Paschal at that time."
Mr Stone said he "deeply" regretted any embarrassment caused to the minister.
Mr Stone also said that he has stood down from his roles as chairperson of the North East Inner City Programme Implementation Board as as board member of the Land Development Agency.
Additional reporting: Tommy Meskill