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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
By Cillian Sherlock

Irish taxpayer potentially defrauded over RTE payments to Ryan Tubridy, TDs told

PA Wire

The Irish taxpayer may have been “defrauded” over undeclared payments made by RTE to its highest earner Ryan Tubridy, a committee has been told.

Chief financial officer Richard Collins also said he believed there was “concealment” or “deception” in two 75,000 euro payments to Tubridy, which bumped his total annual fee up to 515,000 euro.

Ireland’s public service broadcaster has been engulfed in crisis since it stated last week that it had under-reported star presenter Tubridy’s salary over the period 2017 to 2022 by amounts totalling 345,000 euro (or £298,000).

Particular criticism has focused on a commitment in 2020 that RTE would underwrite commercial payments due to Tubridy worth 75,000 euro over a five-year period.

Tubridy, who had served as the host of The Late Late Show until May and presents a weekday radio programme, has said the responsibility rests with RTE, but admitted he should have questioned the accuracy of published figures on his salary.

It was suggested during committee on Thursday that the undisclosed payments issue could have been raised with Tubridy before he announced his decision to step down from the role; Tubridy has previously denied this issue formed part of his decision to step down.

Dee Forbes, who resigned as director general of RTE on Monday, has said she did not act contrary to advice in underwriting commercial fees to Tubridy during a May 2020 meeting with Tubridy’s agent, Noel Kelly.

On Thursday, executives and board members from RTE appeared before an Oireachtas committee to answer questions about undeclared payments for the second day in a row.

At the outset, chair of the RTE board Siun Ni Raghallaigh said there had been “grave failings in internal controls at RTE”, and that she was “appalled” at how payments were recorded in RTE’s accounts.

“It appears to me that this was an act designed to deceive,” she said.

Mr Collins told the Public Accounts committee that RTE had been given legal advice not to call the transactions “fraud”, but added: “My own opinion is, maybe the taxpayer was defrauded.”

He told TDs that when Deloitte raised concerns about the invoices received for two payments of 75,000 euro each from Tubridy’s agent, he asked Ms Forbes about it and she said they were “consultancy invoices relating to Noel Kelly management”.

He told the committee he was told this consultancy concerned how RTE “structured itself and presented itself during Covid”.

Although Mr Collins said that this appeared to him as “a plausible excuse” at that stage, he conceded that he should have asked more questions of the director general.

“I was concerned, but I knew the director general had a close relationship with Noel Kelly,” he told TDs.

RTE’s commercial director Geraldine O’Leary said that car company Renault was not aware of RTE underwriting payments to Tubridy under the tripartite commercial agreement.

She said that either Noel Kelly or the director general had come up with the phrase “consultancy fees” in relation to invoices sent to her department for two 75,000 euro payments, but could not exactly remember who.

She said she knew of the first payment, which was paid by Renault to Tubridy, but was not across the second or third.

She said she was asked to use the barter account to pay for them, “so I knew what they were for”.

Sinn Fein TD Imelda Munster suggested: “You knew they were top-up payments for Ryan Tubridy?”

“Yes I did,” Ms O’Leary replied.

“I had no idea whether there was a separate agreement. I knew in year one that there was a legitimate deal with Renault where three events happened … I knew there was nothing done through a commercial partner for these invoices, but I did not know what other things Ryan Tubridy might be doing for payment – that was not discussed with me.”

Committee members also focused on the barter account used by RTE, with a former chairwoman of the broadcaster’s board expressing concern “about the tension between commercial and public service”.

Moya Doherty said it was “staggering” that nether she nor her board colleagues were aware of the existence of a barter account for RTE during their tenure, nor how it was used.

The committee was told that there were costs of 111,000 euro to the barter account for travel and hotels to facilitate bringing clients to the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and a further 138,000 euro to buy 10-year IRFU tickets.

In addition, there were transactions relating to the Champions League final in 2019 totalling 26,000 euro.

Ms Doherty told TDs: “None of us knew of the existence of this barter fund, which was outside of the financial department, and therefore not reported to us as a board during our monthly meetings, and did not exist in the monthly management account.

“For me, as chair, and for my colleagues on the board, that is staggering and absolutely shocking … we didn’t even pick up in the corridors of RTE the existence of the barter fund.”

At the beginning of the committee meeting, TDs were told that the incoming director-general Kevin Bakhurst will reconstitute RTE’s executive as his “first task”.

Ms Ni Raghallaigh also indicated that the pay of RTE executives – and possibly RTE’s top 100 earners – will be published as soon as possible.

Before Thursday’s committee appearance began, the new host of The Late Late Show, Patrick Kielty, revealed that his salary is worth 250,000 euro per 30-show season, along with a 20,000 one-off payment for pre-production between now and September.

Kielty and RTE had been facing calls to disclose his contract arrangements given the furore around the misreported payments to Tubridy.

He stated that the contract also allows him to submit flight and accommodation expenses, but that he has waived this; TDs were told during committee that these expenses were worth 50,000 euro.

Speaking from Brussels, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that the most important thing RTE has to do “is win back the confidence of the public and the licence payers”.

He said that Ms Forbes, Tubridy and his agent Mr Kelly should also appear before committee to publicly answer any outstanding questions.

He added: “They may have a story to tell, I think it is right they should be allowed to tell their side of the story.

“The fact that they wouldn’t, or would refuse to, would be of more concern to me.”

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