Belfast Telegraph

Probe clearing Roads Service of tender bias branded inept

BY Adrian Rutheford

A government investigation into allegations of favouritism in the awarding of contracts was shoddy, incompetent and not interested in getting to the truth, a damning report has claimed.

Despite dragging on for four years, the inquiry into the procurement of road signs lacked professionalism and side-stepped many serious questions raised by a whistleblower.

The scathing report from the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised what it termed a catalogue of errors in the probe by the Department for Regional Development. It also found:

  • A senior official failed to disclose all relevant facts in correspondence with an MP on the matter;
  • The head of the inquiry transferred to the body being investigated – three months before his probe was completed – in a move branded "wholly inappropriate";
  • Despite a large number of allegations and supporting documentation provided by the whistleblower, he had just two meetings and one telephone conversation with the department in five years; and
  • Orders for road signs which should have been given to the whistleblower were instead given to his main business competitor – leading the PAC to say it was difficult not to conclude that something other than simple error was at play.

The controversy dates back to 2005 when whistleblower David Connolly made allegations against Roads Service staff involved in the procurement of road signs. Mr Connolly was a director of the now-defunct Newtownards company Signs & Equipment Ltd.

The firm closed down in 2005 after losing out on work to supply Roads Service with traffic signs.

Mr Connolly's allegations included collusion, favouritism to a preferred contractor and orders not being given to the appointed contractor.

An internal audit report in 2010 found no evidence to support most of the allegations or that staff deliberately showed favouritism to a particular contractor. However, inquiries by the Audit Office and now the PAC found major weaknesses in the investigation.

Today's report states the inquiry team did not have the expertise to conduct a proper investigation into the complex issues. The allegation of collusion was not made a priority, the PAC said.

"There were clearly serious questions that needed to be addressed and the committee is not convinced that this happened," the report claims.

Some allegations passed to investigators in 2005 were not examined for four years. There was also a lack of meaningful communication with Mr Connolly, who was forced to use Freedom of Information requests to obtain details he required.

The report notes that members were "astounded" to learn how, in October 2009, the head of the investigation team moved to work in the roads secretariat of Transport NI, formerly Roads Service, three months before the investigation concluding. The committee raised concerns of a perception of cosiness and reward.

"We consider that it was wholly inappropriate for the person leading an important investigation to be transferred into the entity being investigated, before the investigation was closed," it adds.

The committee's overall conclusion on the investigation is highly critical. It states allegations of fraud and collusion require a forensic review by a competent and experienced fraud investigator.

In response to the report's criticisms, Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy said actions had been taken to address the issues raised.

"I fully support the concept of a specialised fraud investigation unit for the public sector and across all departments," he said.

He added that all internal audit investigations were now by led by a member of appropriately qualified staff and arms-length bodies had enhanced capacity to conduct fraud investigations with properly qualified and trained staff.

BACKGROUND

The Public Accounts Committee said the NI Water and DRD cases point to fundamental weaknesses in fraud investigation practice.

These include:

  •  Investigations were conducted by internal auditors with little, if any, experience in investigating fraud
  •  Inadequate planning and inappropriate investigative methodologies were used
  •  Record keeping was poor
  •  There was a lack of professional scepticism
  •  Lack of engagement with PSNI or other fraud specialists

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