From top: National broadband consortium leader David McCourt, former Minister for Communications Denis Naughten; Pat Leahy, of The Irish Times, and Mary Regan, of RTÉ News
A fortnight ago, leaks concerning the then pending review by auditor Peter Smyth into the National Broadband Plan procurement process were given to selected journalists.
Mr Smyth was tasked with examining the interactions between the former Minister for Communications Denis Naughten and businessman David McCourt, founder and chairman of Granahan McCourt – the last remaining consortium bidding for the National Broadband Plan.
The purpose of the review was to see if their interactions undermined the integrity of the procurement process.
The leaks gave the impression that Mr Smyth found that the procurement process was wholly untainted by the meetings, with RTÉ reporting:
“RTÉ News understands that a review of the procurement process for the National Broadband Plan will state that it was not undermined by contacts between the former Communications Minister Denis Naughten and the businessman [David McCourt]…”
But Mr Smyth actually found:
“…the fact that the former Minister met with Mr McCourt (or representatives of the other bidders) outside of the process is not in and of itself a basis for finding that the procurement process has been tainted.”
He also said that, as he has to take Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt’s word for what was discussed at two one-to-one meetings and one telephone call:
“I cannot unequivocally state that the State-led intervention under the NBP was not discussed at the meetings between the former minister and Mr McCourt outside of the procurement process.”
On Tuesday, November 20, 2018.Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed to the Dáil that the review by Peter Smyth into the National Broadband Plan procurement process had been received by the Government.
He also confirmed it had gone to the Attorney General and that anyone named in the report may be be sent a copy of the report, to give them a chance to respond to the report’s findings.
However, he ultimately anticipated the review would be published in a matter of days.
During that same day, RTÉ’s Business Editor Will Goodbody reported this and added that the review had not been discussed at that morning’s Cabinet meeting.
Later that evening, on the Six One News, Mr Goodbody reported:
“As for what it [the review] says, well everyone is remaining tight-lipped in Government circles about that today. Certainly though, it’s contents will determine the future of this plan, as it stands at the moment and it will certainly have a big impact on how soon it is that people around the country, who are still waiting for high-speed broadband service, will get it.”
A few hours later, on RTÉ’s Nine News, Mary Regan, formerly of the Sunday Business Post but now with RTÉ’s political staff, reported to presenter Eileen Dunne about the contents of the review based on speaking to “a number of Government sources”.
Ms Dunne introduced the news item saying:
“RTÉ News understands that a review of the procurement process for the National Broadband Plan will state that it was not undermined by contacts between the former Communications Minister Denis Naughten and the businessman leading the only remaining consortium for the plan.”
Ms Regan then told presenter Eileen Dunne:
“I understand, from speaking to a number of Government sources this evening that it does not find that those contacts undermined the process in any way. So essentially what it means is that the Government can proceed with the normal evaluation process that would take place for any tendering process which the Government has previously said would happen by Christmas.
“There had been some fear that this report might stop the procurement process in its tracks but that now doesn’t seem to be the case and that report is expected to be published in the coming days.”
Similarly, the following morning, on Wednesday, November 21, 2018, on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Ms Regan reported the same to presenter Bryan Dobson.
Mr Dobson, in a similar fashion to Ms Dunne the night before, introduced the item saying:
“A review ordered by the Taoiseach last month, into the integrity of the National Broadband [Plan] process will state that it was not undermined by contacts between the former Communications Minister Denis Naughten and the businessman leading the only remaining consortium for the plan.”
During her report, Ms Regan then told Mr Dobson:
“I understand, speaking to a number of sources in Government, that he [Smyth] does not have any findings to indicate that this process was undermined by the meetings that took place. And what Government sources are interpreting this as meaning, is that the procurement process and the assessment of it can go ahead.
“So, essentially, that means a legal assessment that would normally be taking place is now proceeding and the Government has previously said it wants that process to be finished by Christmas.”
“…My understanding, speaking to a number of sources is that this particular issue is not cause for halting the process.”
“…The Government will be hoping that this stumbling block, at least, is out of the way in terms of proceeding ahead with this plan.”
That same morning, on Wednesday, November 21, 2018, Pat Leahy, in The Irish Times also reported on the review based on his contacts with “high-level sources” and “sources in Government”.
Mr Leahy’s article was published on page six of the newspaper but was also flagged on the front page of that morning’s edition.
He reported that the review “is expected to find that the process has not been fatally damaged by meetings between the sole remaining bidder and the former minister for communications Denis Naughten, high-level sources say”.
Mr Leahy added:
“The Irish Times understands that Mr Smyth will not recommend that the process should be abandoned. Several sources in Government said they believed the process would now continue.”
Later that afternoon, in the Dáil, Ms Regan’s Morning Ireland report was raised by Labour leader Brendan Howlin.
Brendan Howlin: “I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the national broadband procurement plan. This morning, it was announced on “Morning Ireland” that the Peter Smyth report had indicated that the process to procure the national broadband plan had not been undermined by contact between the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, and Mr David McCourt. It quoted a number of Government sources and their interpretation of the report. Why are a number of Government sources interpreting a report that has not been published and when will people see the report?”
Leo Varadkar: “I wish I knew because a number of Government sources have not seen the report. The only people in the Government who have it are the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and I.”
Micheál Martin: “Government sources gave it to RTÉ…The journalists confirmed that this morning.”
Varadkar: “I have no idea how that kind of thing transpires, but the position is as it was yesterday. The report is with the Attorney General and he may need to redact parts of it for reasons of commercial sensitivity. It has been given to individuals who are not members of the Government and are named in it to allow for their opinion.”
Howlin: “Who is spinning?”
Mr Smyth’s review was eventually published at week later, on Tuesday, November 27.
It found Mr Naughten met with Mr McCourt, or other members of the Granahan McCourt consortium, on the following 12 occasions between October 20, 2016 and August 8, 2018:
October 20, 2016: Mr Naughten had “an introductory meeting” with David McCourt” in Leinster House with several of Mr Naughten’s officials present.
September 7, 2017: Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt were both present at a enet/SSE public launch in Ballinasloe.
September 16, 2017: Mr Naughten had dinner with David McCourt and Minister Pat Breen in Clare.
January 31, 2018: Mr Naughten had a coffee meeting in Dublin with Mr McCourt. [This took place a day after eir officially confirmed to Mr Naughten that it was withdrawing from the procurement process].
Of this meeting, Mr Smyth said he was relying on Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt’s account of what was discussed as they had coffee.
There is no formal minute of this meeting.
February 28, 2018: Mr Naughten had dinner in Dublin with David McCourt. Mr Naughten’s former press secretary was also at this dinner.
March 27, 2018: Mr Naughten had a short dinner with David McCourt in the Merrion Hotel with nobody else present.
In relation to this “short dinner”, Mr Smyth said he was relying on Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt’s account of what was discussed at this dinner.
April 16, 2018: Mr Naughten had a meeting with David McCourt. Mr Naughten’s press secretary and one of his special advisors was also at this meeting.
May 14, 2018: Mr Naughten attended Mr McCourt’s book launch.
June 26, 2018: Mr Naughten had a pre-sponsors meeting with Mr McCourt.
June 26, 2018 (same date): Mr Naughten had a sponsors meeting with Mr McCourt and Granahan McCourt’s NBP team.
July 16, 2018: Mr Naughten met with Mr McCourt in New York.
August 8, 2018: Mr Naughten had a phone call with Mr McCourt.
There is no formal minute of this call.
In relation to this phonecall, Mr Smyth said he was relying on Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt’s account of what was discussed during this call.
[Mr Naughten also met with the Granahan McCourt consortium and SSE, without Mr McCourt present, six times between June 28, 2016 and August 8, 2018]
Mr Smyth found:
“The meetings on the 26th of June 2018 were a formal part of the dialogue process. The meeting on the 31st of January and the phone call on the 8th of August could also be considered in the context of the State-led intervention under the NBP.
“Albeit it would have been preferable that the former Minister was accompanied by a DCCAE official and that the meeting and the call were formally documented.”
“The remaining meetings as and of themselves gave rise to a concern as they suggest an ongoing engagement between the former minister and Mr McCourt outside of any formal need for them to engage with each other in the normal course of the department’s business including the State-led intervention under the NBP.”
But he found:
“I am satisfied that the former Minister did not influence or seek to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise.”
“…the procurement process for the State-led intervention under the NBP does not expressly prohibit engagements between the bidders (or individual members of a bidding consortium) and the Department.”
“Therefore the fact that the former Minister met with Mr McCourt (or representatives of the other bidders) outside of the process is not in and of itself a basis for finding that the procurement process has been tainted.”
“Due to the limitations of the review process, in the absence of formal minutes or meeting notes for a number of meetings, I am reliant on statements of the former Minister, Mr McCourt and other parties for verification of the purpose and contents of those meetings.
“Therefore, I cannot unequivocally state that the State-led intervention under the NBP was not discussed at the meetings between the former minister and Mr McCourt outside of the procurement process.”
Mr Smyth added that he believed the decision of Mr Naughten to resign “insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt” – therefore Mr Smyth found the procurement process could go forward because of Mr Naughten’s resignation.
On RTÉ’s News At One, last Thursday, November 29, 2018…
Mr Naughten indicated that there was just one unminuted meeting.
He told host Áine Lawlor:
“There was 40 engagements that I had with all of the bidders, in this process. Of those 40 engagements, 39 of them are either minuted, there was another person present for them or I briefed officials immediately after it.”
“…Of the ten engagements that I with David McCourt, eight of those engagements were after he was the sole bidder and my sole focus at that stage was to keep Granahan McCourt at the table.”
Statements on Mr Smyths’ report are scheduled to be made in the Dáil at 6.05pm this evening.
The report can be read in full here