Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe has confirmed a breach of election rules after Fine Gael in Dublin Central “unknowingly” received an unauthorised corporate donation of €434.20 in 2020.
Mr Donohoe said that the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) has been notified and that the amount received in excess of the allowable limit, €234.20, will be returned to businessman Michael Stone’s company Designer Group.
Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday, Mr Donohoe apologised again and said he deeply regretted that the controversy had caused the loss of Mr Stone from the boards of both the Land Development Agency (LDA) and the North East Inner City Taskforce.
The minister said, following his statement in the chamber last Wednesday, he received a call from Mr Stone “telling me that a member of his team did recall support being provided in 2020 through the campaign team”.
“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,” he said.
“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. An amendment will also be made this week to my election expenses return to the value of €1,256.20 for the work carried out and use of the vans up to polling day.”
Mr Donohoe said neither he nor his team were aware of any payments to any individuals for the erection or removal of posters in either election at the time of filing election returns to Sipo.
“The vast majority of my posters were erected and taken down on a voluntary basis. This was, we believed, to be the case with regard to the support given by Michael Stone. At each point in this, having undertaken reviews designed to determine the full facts, we have always taken the appropriate steps to correct the record,” he said.
The minister added that he had been working since last Thursday to ensure that the information regarding the 2020 General Election campaign was completely accurate.
“I have informed the Dáil of the facts as I have known them that were true at each and every juncture and I again apologise for the difficulties this has caused and for the distraction it may have and does cause to the important work of Government,” he said.
“I have always sought to hold myself, and those around me, to the highest of standards. Finally, I want to say that I deeply regret that this has caused the loss of Mr Stone from the boards of both the Land Development Agency and the North East Inner City Taskforce.
“He gave his time freely in an attempt to make a difference to the lives of those who faced with significant challenges. His experience will be a great loss to both organisations.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Stone said he inadvertently misled Mr Donohoe and issued a statement apologising for his error, saying he would resign from two unpaid State board positions he holds.
“I deeply regret any embarrassment that I caused Paschal for my mistaken recollection in relation to 2020 and for what I thought was modest help for a hardworking, honest politician,” he said in the statement issued by the Designer Group.
Sinn Féin’s deputy leader Pearse Doherty said the minister had been “caught out” and accused him of “reverse-engineering the numbers to make it all seem plausible”.
The Donegal TD asked who in 2017 had made the allegation relating to the use of the company van belonging to Michael Stone.
In response, Mr Donohoe said what was being discussed was “an inadvertent donation” which was being remedied with Sipo, but it actually referred to postering, which he had assumed was being done on a voluntary basis.
The minister said a journalist whose identity he has not established made the allegation in 2017.
Labour TD Ged Nash said while real issues such as housing and health should be being discussed, stanards and accountability mattered.
“Ethics matter, transparency and full disclosure matters. I believe that standards matters to you too,” he said.
The Louth TD said it gave him no pleasure to say that Mr Donohoe had broken the electoral rules on two occasions, and “third chances don’t come around very often in politics”.
Mr Nash asked what member of Fine Gael arranged for the “help” that Mr Stone provided, adding that only an election agent could legally authorise expenditure.
Mr Donohoe said that north inner city Fine Gael councillor Ray McAdam received the postering, adding that any money received went into the Fine Gael Dublin Central account.
Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall said the minister had made “a complete hames” of his response to the issue and that this was “a charitable reading of the situation”.
Responding to questions from Solidarity/People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy, Mr Donohoe said that Mr Stone did not provide services to Fine Gael during the 2019 local and European elections.
Mr Murphy said that subsequent donations looked like “donations to you, as opposed to Fine Gael”. The minister said the donations were to Fine Gael in Dublin Central “not to me” and there were donations “to the national party” through the sale of tickets.
Ministerial colleagues from all three Coalition parties on Tuesday evening told The Irish Times they supported Mr Donohoe. Some, however, accepted privately that the episode has caused political damage to the embattled Minister for Public Expenditure.
At a post-Cabinet briefing, a Government spokesman repeatedly refused to confirm whether it had had been aware in advance of the intended publication time of Mr Stone’s statement on Tuesday morning.
While the Government hoped the statement from Mr Donohoe, and the Dáil question and answer session, would draw a line under the controversy, all the main Opposition parties indicated last night they would continue to pursue the mater.
Sinn Féin last night said the session had raised more questions than answers and would decide how to proceed in the coming days. Mr Nash said Mr Donohoe needed to publish the amended statements in full, while Paul Murphy of People Before Profit said he will examine the possibility of making a complaint to SIPO about Fine Gael.