Minister for public expenditure Paschal Donohoe has said an “unauthorised” donation to Fine Gael of corporate vans used to put up election posters in 2020 breached donation limits.
He said the breach has been reported to the ethics watchdog Sipo, and that the amount over the limit – 234.20 euro, will be refunded.
The Dublin Central TD also said he was unaware people were paid to put up posters before the 2016 and 2020 general elections when making his official declarations for both years.
Ahead of Mr Donohoe’s much-anticipated Dail statement, businessman Michael Stone, who is chief executive of the engineering firm the Designer Group, announced he was resigning from two boards.
Mr Stone said he had “mistakenly believed” he had not paid for help putting up posters as part of the 2020 general election, and that he did not know payments for the 2016 general election posters needed to be accounted for in Mr Donohoe’s electoral expenses.
Mr Donohoe said he should have amended his election expenses in 2017 after he became aware that a corporate van had been used to hang the posters up, which he has estimated to be worth 140 euro.
Giving his second Dail statement about how election poster expenses went undeclared, Mr Donohoe said an amendment will now also be made this week to his 2020 general election expenses declaration.
Mr Donohoe said he will declare 1,256 euro-worth of postering services donated by Mr Stone and the Designer Group in the period up to polling day.
“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 euro for labour and 392.20 euro for vehicles for support received during the election period,” he said.
“An amendment will also be made this week to my election expenses to the value of 1,256 euro for the work carried out and use of the vans up to polling day.”
Mr Donohoe said that the payment to workers was a “personal” one from Mr Stone, and that the use of corporate vans for postering was a “corporate” donation to the Fine Gael Dublin Central branch.
He said he had received no payments personally, and that the donations were all in the form of posters being put up.
“The nature of the donation is the value that is attributed to posters being put up – at no point was money received that needs to be put into that (Fine Gael Dublin Central) account,” he said.
“This was in the form of the use of vehicles, the commercial value of which exceeded the maximum allowable donation limit of 200 euro.
“Sipo have been notified of this breach and 234.20 euro, the amount received in excess of the allowable limit, will be refunded to the Designer Group.”
In a tense Dail exchange, Sinn Fein finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty urged Mr Donohoe to reveal how many posters were put up by the workers, telling him to “come clean” and arguing that he had been “caught out time and time again”.
Mr Donohoe said he had been unable to determine how many posters they put up, responding: “Deputy, I don’t know if you’re interested in my answer or my head. But what you’re going to get is the best answer I have available.”
Labour’s Ged Nash told the minister that “we know from Mr Stone’s statement that, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, that you broke the electoral rules on two occasions – in 2016 and in 2020”.
Social Democrat TD Roisin Shortall said that Mr Donohoe had “made a hames” of the issue.
“Ignorance of the law, of course, is no defence. And it’s particularly not a defence when the the breaching of those laws is being done by the minister who is responsible for implementing that law,” she said.
Mr Donohoe responded: “Sipo will impartially evaluate what has happened here and the consequences, so not knowing is not a defence, but I think proportionality in this debate is also important.”
He said he had aimed to be “fully transparent” when he addressed the Dail last Wednesday, and said the statement he gave “was an honest reflection of the information” he had at the time.
“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.
“Neither I nor my team were aware of any payments to any individuals for the putting up or removing of posters in either election at the time of filing election returns. 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 Mr Stone. At each point in this, having undertaken reviews aiming to get the full facts, I’ve always taken the appropriate steps to correct the record.”