Over three days at the end of April 2017, around 290 councillors from all 31 local authorities across the country gathered at CityNorth Hotel in Gormanston, Co Meath.
The occasion, known as the Spring Training Seminar, was a big day in the calendar of the Local Authority Members Association (LAMA), a representative body for councillors.
The headline session at the event concerned councillors' remuneration. It was a seemingly mundane subject, but somewhat ironic, given the expense claims that some councillors would later submit to their local authorities for this event.
One of the attendees was Fianna Fáil councillor Patrick Gerard Murphy, who told Cork County Council that he left his home in Bantry at 1pm on the Thursday for the seminar.
According to his expense claim, he returned home on Saturday evening – a 736km round trip that entitled him to €630.
But Cllr Murphy also submitted an expense claim to the Cork Education and Training Board, asserting that, on the very same Thursday, he left home to attend an altogether different meeting in Dublin city centre – the annual general meeting of IPB Insurance, which also took place on Friday.
He claimed for a return trip of 668km, entitling him to €558, and received an overnight rate of €133.73 for his stay.
The Gormanston seminar is just one event for which councillors submitted overlapping claims. Over the course of several months, RTÉ Investigates reviewed expense records from every local authority in the country, as well as records from numerous other public bodies that pay councillors' expenses.
The records reveal that hundreds of councillors contravened a provision in the Local Government Act designed to provide transparency about the expenses claimed by local representatives.
They also demonstrate more serious breaches. Many councillors across the country have received double payments, by wrongly claiming expenses from their own local authority and from an external organisation for the same official absence.
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RTÉ Investigates: Claims, Planes and Automobiles
Cllr Murphy did not tell Cork County Council about the expenses he received from the Cork Education and Training Board, in contravention of that Local Government Act provision, which requires councillors to notify their local authority of payments received from other bodies to which they are council nominees.
(In fact, Cllr Murphy did not disclose to the council details of any of the payments he received from the board in 2017, which totalled around €6,000.)
Cllr Murphy told RTÉ Investigates that he deeply regretted what he called "administrative errors and oversights in claims".
"I take full responsibility," he said, noting that he had reimbursed the overpayments to both Cork County Council and the Cork Education and Training Board, and had furnished the council with the information regarding his 2017 payments.
Ger Frisby, a Fianna Fáil councillor from Kilkenny, also attended both the Gormanston seminar and the IPB Insurance meeting. In his case, he told Kilkenny County Council that he travelled from Kilkenny for the seminar on Thursday and returned on Saturday evening, entitling him to €466 in expenses.
But Cllr Frisby also expensed Kilkenny and Carlow Education and Training Board for a return trip from Kilkenny to Dublin, on the Friday, for the IPB Insurance meeting. For this event, he received a further €169.
He did not notify Kilkenny County Council of this meeting, nor the expenses he received for attending, which he was legally required to do.
Cllr Frisby told RTÉ Investigates that he had made an "error of judgement" concerning this discrepancy and said that he had offered his apologies to the education and training board.
He added: "I wish to confirm that I am in the process of updating my records to ensure that I am in compliance [with the Local Government Act]."
A third Fianna Fáil councillor, Clare Colleran Molloy, also attended both events and submitted two separate expense claims to Clare County Council.
According to her expense claims, after the IPB meeting finished in Dublin, she returned to Ennis, then, later that day, drove to Gormanston. In total, she claimed more than 1,000km for the two events and missed most of the Gormanston seminar.
The rules stipulate that, in such situations, a councillor is entitled to claim for "the shortest overall route" between the two events and not for two return trips home.
Cllr Colleran Molloy also claimed for an overnight stay on Saturday night – even though the Gormanston event finished Saturday afternoon.
She told RTÉ Investigates that her claims were made "in good faith" but that she realised that "two errors were made for which I take full responsibility."
She said that she had to return to Ennis from Dublin on Friday to attend to an "urgent personal matter."
She also said that "the overnight on Saturday was personal time and was not to be reimbursed", adding that she had "not realised this overpayment".
She said that she had reimbursed €343 to Clare County Council.
The Gormanston event illustrates a weakness of the expenses system: it is largely unvouched, meaning that much of the time, councillors do not need to produce receipts.
The public are entitled to expect high standards from councillors. Those standards are set by the Local Government Act, which requires that a notice be issued to councillors drawing their attention to the Code of Conduct for Councillors.
Each year, councillors are obliged to declare they have complied with the provisions of that code.
Furthermore, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has issued detailed directions that further set out the rules in this area.
The key requirement is simple: compliance, at all times, with the rules governing the making of claims and payments of any kind.
'Abuse of attendances has reflected badly on elected members’
In 2014, the then Minister for Environment, Community, and Local Government, Phil Hogan, introduced new regulations relating to councillors’ expenses.
"Abuse of conference attendances has in the past reflected badly on elected members," he said.
Under the regulations, councillors are obliged to notify their local authority, every quarter, of any expenses received from external bodies where they are council nominees.
Ministerial Directions issued by the Department, which provide additional rules for claiming expenses, explain that local authorities may use these notifications to ensure there are no double payments.
Councils are also required to publish registers detailing councillors’ expenses related to conferences and training, and, furthermore, relating to external body expenses.
RTÉ Investigates collected the published registers from every local authority and also obtained, under the Freedom of Information Act, breakdowns of expenses paid to councillors by more than 30 external bodies.
The records from the external bodies were collated with records from local authorities.
Where it appeared that there could be an issue with a set of overlapping dates or times, RTÉ Investigates sought clarification from the councillor in question.
Councillors are generally entitled to claim for an overnight payment where they attend an event that is 100km or more away from their home and where, according to Ministerial Directions, they are "obliged to spend a night away from home and could not reasonably be expected to have returned home."
The standard overnight rate, which was €108.99 in 2014, has increased on occasion and currently stands at €147. There are deductions where meals are provided at events.
RTÉ Investigates has identified a number of instances in which councillors have claimed for overnights that clashed with meetings of external bodies.
Mary Howard, a Fine Gael councillor from Ennis, was first elected to Clare County Council in 2014. In addition to her role as a councillor, she was also a board member of the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board, and of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT).
RTÉ Investigates discovered four separate instances in which Cllr Howard’s commitments with either the training board or GMIT clashed with training seminars expensed to her council.
The first involved a seminar in Bantry, Co Cork, at the end of September 2016. In a council claim, she said she left home on a Thursday afternoon for Bantry, returning on Sunday afternoon. She was paid €532 for mileage and subsistence, including two overnight stays.
In a claim to the training board, however, Cllr Howard said she left home on Friday morning for an interview panel in Limerick that took place between 9.30am and 6pm. She was paid for the return journey from Ennis to Limerick, as well as a fee of €130.
Cllr Howard told RTÉ Investigates that she drove to Bantry on Thursday and stayed overnight but forgot that she was to conduct interviews in Limerick the following morning.
She said that she drove back to Limerick early on Friday, and then returned to Bantry after the interviews were finished.
In her seminar report submitted to Clare County Council, Cllr Howard noted that one of the speakers at the Bantry event, the former President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, "gave a great presentation."
But Mr Cox was scheduled to speak at 2pm Friday, four hours before the Limerick interview panel finished.
When asked about this discrepancy, Cllr Howard said: "I clearly remember that night at dinner in the hotel the other councillors and I had a lengthy discussion on Pat Cox’s presentation."
When subsequently asked to clarify if she had actually witnessed this presentation, or if she was relying on what other councillors had told her, she said, "I can’t remember."
RTÉ Investigates asked Cllr Howard about three other conflicts: events in Gorey and Monaghan Town, which clashed with GMIT meetings in Galway – as well as an event in Donegal Town, which clashed with another training board interview panel in Limerick.
Claims submitted to both the training board and GMIT place her in Ennis on mornings when she was, according to her council claims, at the seminars in other parts of the country at the expense of her council.
Cllr Howard insisted that she stayed overnight on those occasions. She said she drove to the Gorey and Monaghan seminars, stayed the night, left for Galway in the morning for the GMIT meetings, and then drove back to the seminars once the meetings were finished.
This would involve two round trips for each event, even though her claims to the council indicated one round trip per event.
In both cases, based on the times she indicated and the seminar programmes, it appears that she had apparently left for Galway from Gorey and Monaghan before the seminars had even opened for registration.
"I enjoy driving, thus journeying to and from these locations is not a chore for me," Cllr Howard said.
There is an added issue with the Monaghan seminar.
Cllr Howard initially told RTÉ Investigates that she travelled to Monaghan to attend the seminar on 24 October 2018, then left before breakfast the following day to attend a GMIT meeting in Galway City at 10am.
She also said that the GMIT meeting finished at lunchtime and that she returned to Monaghan for the remainder of the seminar.
This would have enabled her to attend a part of the Monaghan seminar, which officially opened that morning at 10am.
But after receiving her initial response, RTÉ Investigates uncovered a post on social media that indicated that Cllr Howard was in Ennis on the evening of 25 October, at a talk on cyber safety for children. Cllr Howard was photographed alongside one of the speakers at the event.
In a statement, the councillor said: "I am responding from memory and as far as I can recall I returned to Monaghan, once the photos and welcomes were done at the Cybersafety evening."
RTÉ Investigates identified two other councillors who claimed for overnights through their councils for certain events, and who also submitted claims to external bodies for meetings that coincided.
The claims forms for the external body meetings placed the councillors at home on mornings when they were, according to their council claims, at the council-expensed events elsewhere.
Fianna Fáil councillor Clifford Kelly, from Kingscourt, Co Cavan, had two conflicts, involving a training seminar in Tipperary in 2017, and separately, a Dungarvan conference in 2018. In both cases, Cllr Kelly told Cavan County Council he left home on a Thursday, returning Saturday.
But in the intervening Fridays, on both occasions, he attended interview panels with Dundalk IT and said that he had left home in Kingscourt on those mornings and returned in the afternoons.
In a statement, Cllr Kelly said he travelled to the events in question for registration and stayed overnight. But due to two "diary management" oversights, he realised that he had to sit on interview panels and so he left the hotels at 5am on both mornings to go to Dundalk. He said he returned to the seminars when the interviews were over.
In another case, Bobby O’Connell, a Fine Gael councillor from Castleisland, Co Kerry, claimed for a housing conference in Kilkenny in October 2016, which included a Wednesday overnight stay.
In a claim submitted to the Regional Health Forum South, Cllr O’Connell said he left home on Thursday morning for a meeting in Tralee.
Kerry County Council confirmed that Cllr O’Connell had not disclosed details of meetings attended with the Regional Health Forum South for 2016 and 2017.
Cllr O’Connell told RTÉ Investigates that he had travelled to Kilkenny on 19 October but that he "received an urgent phone call regarding a family emergency and had to return home at 4.00am."
He said that it was not his intention to go to the meeting in Tralee on the date in question, but because he was at home, and because the "family issue was resolved", he attended this meeting, then returned home, and then went back to Kilkenny on the evening of 20 October.
Cllr O’Connell also said that he had submitted expense details for 2018 and 2019 to his council, and that "It was an oversight that 2016 & 2017 were not submitted… I am currently in the process of rectifying this oversight."
‘Open to interpretation’
In addition to claims incorrectly made for overnight stays, RTÉ Investigates also discovered instances where councillors claimed for meetings or events that overlapped with other meetings, effectively being paid twice for part of the same journey or absence.
There is nothing unusual about a councillor having two events on the same day. But where this occurs, councillors are obliged to take care when submitting expenses claims so that they are not in receipt of a double payment.
One example involves Fine Gael councillor Enda McGloin, who is also a member of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly and of Leitrim County Council.
In 2019, Cllr McGloin, from Drumshanbo, told the assembly that he left home at 7am on Thursday 14 November, for a Belfast meeting, due to take place between 10.30am and 4pm. He said he returned home from the meeting at 6pm and claimed for an approximate round trip from Leitrim to Belfast.
However, claim records submitted to Leitrim County Council show that Cllr McGloin was at the Belfast Airport car park by 2pm that day.
He was due to catch a 3.40pm flight for an awards ceremony that evening in Leicestershire. He also submitted a claim to his council for a return trip from Drumshanbo to Belfast.
Cllr McGloin told RTÉ Investigates that September to December 2019 was "a particularly busy time" for him because he was Cathaoirleach of his council.
He said that, in the middle of December 2019, he was asked by the Northern and Western Regional Assembly to complete expense claims before end-of-year accounts.
"In my haste to do that, I errored [sic] in completing the claim of November 14th," he added. "The relevant sum of €355.22 has been refunded to the NWRA by me."
Another example involves Independent councillor Richard Finn, from Claremorris, Co Mayo.
In a 2016 claim to Mayo County Council, Cllr Finn said he said he left home on a Wednesday for a planning conference in Athlone, due to start that evening, and that he returned on Friday. His expenses of €240 included two overnights.
But in a claim to NUI Galway, Cllr Finn said that he left at 12.30pm on the Thursday, for a Galway meeting, and returned at 6.30pm.
He did not note the start and end locations, but stated that he travelled 87 miles, an approximate return from Claremorris to Galway City.
When asked about the apparent overlap, Cllr Finn said that he was concerned about "aspects of the claim document which I have now taken up with NUIG." He added that until "this is resolved I am not in a position to make any further comment on it."
The final week of September 2018 was especially hectic for Cllr Ger Frisby.
In the four days from Wednesday to Saturday, he attended five separate engagements, involving three public bodies, which paid him a total of €1,545 in expenses and fees.
When the five expense claims are looked at together, a series of contradictions emerge.
It started with a conference in Naas, Co Kildare, where Cllr Frisby attended on behalf of Kilkenny and Carlow Education and Board. In his claim, he said he left his residence at 10am on Wednesday for Naas, returning home on Friday at 12pm.
The Naas conference coincided with two engagements he had at Carlow IT, on Wednesday and Thursday. On both occasions, he claimed a 180km round trip from his home in Slieverue, south Kilkenny, to Carlow.
He also attended another meeting in Carlow IT on Friday, stating that he left home at 8am, returning at 2pm. This clashed with his claim to the training board, in which he said he returned home from Naas at 12pm Friday, and it also clashed with a claim to Kilkenny County Council for a training seminar in Kerry, in which he said he left home at 1pm Friday.
Responding to a series of questions about the inconsistencies, and queries about other incidents in 2017 and 2018, Cllr Frisby said that he had written to the training board to inform it of the discrepancies that RTÉ Investigates had brought to his attention.
He said that he was "deeply embarrassed" by his mistake and that he had told the training board of his desire to repay the amount claimed in error.
He said that he had overclaimed in the three incidents by €821.
"For absolute clarity, I can confirm that I attended all events on all dates in question for which I claimed travel and subsistence payments," he added.
‘The timing conflict was an oversight on my part’
Cllr Seamus Coyle, a Fianna Fáil member of Monaghan County Council, was also particularly active on various public bodies.
Until 2019, he was a member of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, and Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board.
RTÉ Investigates identified three separate conflicts involving claims between Monaghan County Council and those organisations.
The first involved an overlap between a training seminar in Sligo and an assembly meeting in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon. Cllr Coyle told his council that he left home for Sligo on 1 April 2016, at 7.30am, returning Saturday.
In his claim form, he signed a declaration stating: "No other payment has been made to me or is payable to me in respect of the time(s), journey(s) or other matters set out herein."
He was paid €265 in expenses for the Sligo seminar.
However, later that morning, Cllr Coyle attended an assembly meeting in Ballaghaderreen. Because this was an assembly meeting, he did not need to submit an expense claim for payment; he simply had to sign the attendance sheet and he later received €298 in travel and subsistence payments for his attendance.
In October 2016, Cllr Coyle attended a training seminar in Naas, which he expensed to Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. He said he left home at 7am on Thursday 13 October and returned home that day at 7pm, and that he travelled a 305km round trip.
Separately, in a council claim, he said he left home at on that same Thursday for a training seminar in Gorey, Co Wexford, returning at 3pm that Saturday, travelling a 285-mile (459km) round trip.
And in 2017, Cllr Coyle told the council that he left home at 9am on 20 September, for a meeting in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, returning at 4pm that day, for which he received €134 in expenses. This conflicted with a claim to the training board, in which he said he left home at 9am 20 September, for a conference in Kilkenny, returning on 22 September.
Cllr Coyle told RTÉ Investigates that he intended to contact the Northern and Western Regional Assembly in relation to the April 2016 events to "clarify with them if my subsequent attendance at the event in Sligo later that afternoon is contrary to the overall payment of this allowance for this one meeting."
He also said that he had returned home to Monaghan on the evening of 13 October after the Naas training seminar, to attend to his farm, before departing for Gorey.
He said that the timing conflict was "an oversight on my part possibly due to the fact that… there may have been a time lapse in submitting my claims." (Both claims were signed on 24 October.)
Cllr Coyle also told RTÉ Investigates that he attended both events in September 2017 but said that the timing conflict "was an oversight" on his part.
He also confirmed that he did not submit details of payments made to him by outside bodies to Monaghan County Council, which he described as "an error of judgment." He said he was in the process of updating his records to ensure that he complied with the Local Government Act.
Committed to the Regions
One of the more glamourous roles open to councillors is membership of the European Committee of the Regions, which typically involves frequent travel to Brussels and elsewhere in the EU for meetings and events.
Until he retired from Sligo County Council in 2019, Mr Jerry Lundy, from Tubbercurry, was also a member of the Committee of the Regions.
In March 2015, Mr Lundy told Sligo County Council that he left home at 3pm, on a Thursday, for a conference in Monaghan, which opened that evening.
He said he returned home on Saturday. But records show that Mr Lundy attended a Committee seminar in Zwolle, the Netherlands, that Thursday, scheduled from 9.15am to 4.30pm local time. The Committee of the Regions confirmed that Mr Lundy received expenses for this event.
The following month, Mr Lundy told Sligo County Council that he had left home at 8am on Friday 10 April, for training in Tuam, Co Galway, which started later that day.
But Committee of the Regions attendance records place Mr Lundy at a seminar that day, in Elblag, Poland, scheduled from 9am to 1pm.
We also identified four other conflicts, involving Committee of the Regions-related meetings in Europe, which clashed with conferences and training events in Ireland.
Mr Lundy did not respond to several queries from RTÉ Investigates, other than to say that he had left local government over two years ago on health grounds.
‘This has since been refunded’
Independent councillor Declan McDonnell, a member of Galway City Council, joined Mr Lundy on the Committee of the Regions.
He also attended the Monaghan conference in March 2015 and, in a council claim, indicated that he left for this event at 2pm on Thursday 12 March, returning the following evening.
Cllr McDonnell is also recorded as having attended the Committee of the Regions seminar in the Netherlands that Thursday.
He told RTÉ Investigates that he flew home from the Netherlands on 12 March, after "fulfilling my obligation to the [Committee of the Regions]." He said he attended the Monaghan conference the following day and returned home that night.
"I realised that when I completed the GCC form, I overclaimed one day and this has since been refunded to Galway City Council," he said.
On another occasion, in April 2019, Cllr McDonnell attended a planning conference in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim. His claim to the council indicated that he left on Wednesday and returned at 10pm that Friday.
During the conference, however, he also attended a Committee of the Regions-related meeting, at the Northern and Western Regional Assembly in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon.
In the claim form for that meeting, Cllr McDonnell said that he left home at 11.30am on Friday 5 April, for a 2pm meeting, returning home at 5.45pm that evening.
He also said that he had travelled 180km (an approximate return trip from Galway City to Ballaghaderreen). He received €140 in travel and subsistence expenses for this meeting.
"Following discussions with my family, they have recalled that I left the conference in Carrick-on-Shannon early morning on the 5th April 2019 to return home and deal with an urgent family matter," Cllr McDonnell explained. "I then left Galway to attend the CoR meeting in Ballaghaderreen."
He said that he made a mistake when he submitted his expense claim to Galway City Council and that he had refunded his council the daily allowance, €33.61.
A centralised system?
Last year, an independent review of the role and remuneration of councillors, which was commissioned by the government, was published. The review, by senior counsel Sara Moorhead, contained a range of recommendations.
It includes a proposal that councillors’ expenses for outside body meetings be paid by their local authority, and then claimed back by the local authority at the end of the year from the outside bodies.
This is supported by the Association of Irish Local Government, a representative organisation for councillors.
"There are issues with multiple paying bodies," said its director, Mr Tommy Moylan.
"What could help would be having one centralised paying body."
"So rather than having a number of individual, external bodies paying members travel and subsistence payments, that if there was one centralized body, that would help."
But whether government implements this proposal remains to be seen.
Watch RTÉ Investigates: Claims, Planes and Automobiles on RTÉ Player.