This was Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe’s third outing explaining the donations the businessman Michael Stone made to his election campaigns between 2016 and 2021. By the time he came to the end of his eight-minute address to the Dáil the number of breaches or omissions of rules admitted by Donohoe had increased to five.
Two were conceded in his speech to the Dáil last Wednesday. The first was that Stone personally had supplied six workers to erect posters at a cost of €917. The second was that Stone’s company, Designer Group, had supplied the loan of a van, with a value of €140 ascribed to that. That caused Donohoe to say he would amend his election expenses statement for 2016 to reflect those two payments.
In his Dáil statement on Tuesday Donohoe accepted there were three more omissions. Two were similar to last week’s concession. Seven hours before the Minister rose in the Dáil Stone himself disclosed that he had made a similar payment-in-kind to Donohoe during the 2020 campaign. He had again supplied six workers to erect posters at a cost of €864, and Designer Group had also supplied the use of vans worth €434 (€392 of which up to polling day).
Politically the Government needed to get that damaging new information out early in the day rather than leave it to the Minister to drop the bombshell during the Dáil statement. Again these two omissions required Donohoe to amend his election expenses statement for 2020 to the tune of €1,256.
The third omission admitted on Tuesday was the most serious. The donation by Designer Group of the van to the local Fine Gael organisation breached the allowable limit for a corporate donation, which is €200.
“I am now aware that an unauthorised corporate donation of €434.20 was unknowingly received by Fine Gael Dublin Central,” Donohoe told the Dáil. He said that the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) had been notified of this breach and €234.20 would be refunded to the Designer Group.
In terms of gravity there is no doubt that the breach of the strict corporate donation limit is the most serious. And if Sipo is to decide to trigger a full investigation on this issue – which could include a public hearing – it will be on the back of that fifth revelation.
Donohoe also addressed how he moved from saying last Wednesday that Stone made no contribution to his 2020 general election campaign. In the Dáil last Wednesday he said that the only other donations Stone had made (in a personal capacity) was by buying tickets for the Fine Gael national raffle, worth a total of some €1,000 over 2020 and 2021. Both were within the allowable limits.
Donohoe said that he had more than once asked Stone about any other donations and the businessman had told him he had not contributed in 2020. However, after Donohoe’s Dáil statement on Wednesday, Stone contacted him that night to say one of his own team had told him they made a similar contribution to Donohoe’s election campaign, and he had forgotten about it.
It was more than embarrassing for the Minister to have to come into the Dáil for a second time to clarify what had been presented as a comprehensive and tell-all statement.
Another line of attack from the Opposition has been the value that has been ascribed by Donohoe to the postering services provided by Stone and by Designer Group. Opposition parties have compared the price paid (under €1,000 in both cases) with the almost €5,000 paid by a constituency rival, Fianna Fáil’s Mary Fitzpatrick (indeed she was the only one in Dublin Central who included such fees in her statement).
Donohoe’s argument was that it was not comparing like with like as the “vast majority of my posters were erected and taken down on a voluntary basis”. Most of Fitzpatrick’s posters were put up by the company she hired.
Donohoe’s posters were erected by volunteers in other words. His argument was that only a portion of his posters were put up by Stone.
The Minister said neither he nor his team were aware of any payments for postering in either election, suggesting Stone paid for the postering out of his own volition.
However, Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin, Ged Nash of Labour, and Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats all argued that the commercial value put on the services by Donohoe stretched credulity.
Doherty said it was a “cock and bull story” and that the figures had been reverse engineered to come within the guidelines and rules. Nash said the figures applied to the postering services were a “fiction” and a fantasy”, as were the assertions the donation was made to Fine Gael and not to Donoghue. Shortall said that did he really expect people to believe the use of a van with a corporate insignia amounted to a voluntary contribution?
There are more issues to which the Opposition will return. Donohoe was unable to say how many posters were erected by Stone and his workers in both elections. That certainly raised eyebrows among TDs on the opposing benches. Opposition spokespeople claimed it would be impossible to estimate the commercial worth without knowing that information. Donohoe, for his part, argued the value was calculated on the hours worked by the six people hired by Stone.
Another area of further inquiry will be into which donations were made by Stone and which by his company, and why the donations were made to Fine Gael rather than to Donohoe. Nash, in particular, said he found it hard to believe the donation was made not to Donohoe, who in 2016 was involved in an electoral battle for his political survival. The Opposition has claimed the donations were split between individual and corporate to ensure that the minimum number of thresholds were breached.