A Stormont department has been slammed for failing to properly investigate allegations of favouritism in the awarding of contracts.
Despite dragging on for more than four years, the probe into procurement arrangements within Roads Service, an agency of the Department for Regional Development, was poorly planned and badly handled.
In some cases evidence-gathering was delegated to officials who themselves were implicated in the allegations.
The damning findings are detailed in an Audit Office report published on Tuesday.
It said the credibility of DRD's investigation had been "seriously undermined".
Rejecting its findings, the Audit Office said evidence suggested there may have been favouritism in the past.
Its report focuses on 29 allegations made by a whistleblower about procurement practices for the supply, delivery and erection of road signs in Northern Ireland.
The complaints related to claims that Roads Service colluded with a particular firm to ensure it was awarded key contracts.
The company is identified only as Firm A in the report, but is understood to be PWS Ireland Limited, which has offices in Newry and Dundalk.
It was named in a judgment issued by the High Court in 2011 following proceedings taken by the whistleblower, David Connolly.
The allegations, which the report describes as "very serious", include:
- Tender evaluation criteria were changed by Roads Service to ensure its "preferred supplier obtained the lion's share of the work".
- Roads Service colluded with other Government bodies to deliberately delay the award of a contract until its "preferred firm" was eligible.
- There was a closeness between Roads Service and its "preferred firm".
- The criteria for tendering used by Roads Service meant it paid about 30% above market value – equivalent to a waste of around £2m a year.
The report makes no finding on the veracity of the claims made by Mr Connolly, a former director of the now-defunct Newtownards firm Signs & Equipment Ltd. Instead it deals with how a complaint by Mr Connolly to DRD was handled.
The claims were passed to DRD in November 2005 for investigation, along with subsequent allegations in 2006 and 2007. However, it took the department until 2010 to deliver its findings.
DRD claimed the allegations had been "investigated thoroughly" and in most cases lacked any substance.
It found no evidence that staff had deliberately shown favouritism to the other firm.
However, the investigation was criticised by the Audit Office report.
It concluded there were "strong indicators" of either favouritism towards a particular firm or bias against the whistleblower.
This was "totally refuted" by Firm A – PWS Ireland Limited.
"(The investigation) failed to apply the professional investigative standards that we have seen delivered in other reviews of serious whistleblower complaints," the Audit Office concluded.
The report found that while the allegations were addressed individually, consideration was not given to recurring themes such as favouritism.
It said DRD did not accept that there was favouritism or any inference of such behaviour.
However, the report flagged up a range of weaknesses, including:
- The investigation was not well planned.
- Its independence and objectivity were weakened because evidence gathering was devolved, in some cases, to officials who were implicated in the allegations.
- The claims were not addressed in a timely and prompt manner.
- And all allegations were not adequately investigated.
The report concluded that the case was poorly handled.
"The investigation of allegations took over four years to complete, which in itself was unacceptably long but also meant that the evidence trail was significantly compromised, hampering a proper investigation," it added.
Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said there had been serious failings.
"Where a whistleblower takes the significant step of coming forward with serious allegations, it is incumbent upon the relevant public body to carry out a prompt, properly planned and thoroughly executed investigation of the issues raised," he said.
"Our findings in this case lead us to conclude that there were significant weaknesses in the conduct of DRD's investigation leading to the 2010 report.
"As a result of these weaknesses, the credibility of the 2010 investigation is seriously undermined."