A party political war of words has broken out at Stormont after the release of an Assembly report on expenses claimed for a DUP advice centre.
The probe examined taxpayer-funded rental payments for the Ballymena office shared by former First Minister Ian Paisley and his politician son Ian Paisley Jnr.
Standards Commissioner Tom Frawley found that no rules had been broken, but also highlighted ambiguity in the rules on rental arrangements and called for an urgent review.
That proposal was backed by the cross-party Standards and Privileges Committee, who said a review was “essential for the integrity of the Assembly”.
But a row has now erupted between the DUP and SDLP on the interpretation of the investigation findings.
The standards probe was prompted by a complaint in February 2008 against Mr Paisley Jnr from SDLP MLA Declan O'Loan.
Mr O'Loan yesterday declared himself vindicated, while a DUP MLA countered that his party colleague was the one vindicated.
Mr Frawley concluded that Mr Paisley Jnr should have declared his connections to north Antrim developer Seymour Sweeney in the Assembly Register of Interests.
This verdict was overturned by DUP and UUP members on the Standards Committee by a six votes to five majority.
Mr Frawley's report stated that the “frequency and extent of the relationship between Mr Paisley Jnr and Mr Sweeney was such as to establish a close association”. It included “recreational, social and political contacts” as well as “property dealings”, he stated.
This conclusion was rejected by DUP and UUP members as “unreasonable”, particularly as it had been “established that Mr Paisley Jnr did not gain financially from the relationship”.
On the Ballymena advice centre, Mr Frawley’s report showed that there are no Assembly rules on office sizes, no requirement for independent rental valuations, no prohibition on MLAs renting properties from family members, or on using their £72,000-a-year Office Cost Allowance to create a property asset for their parties.
He also stated: “I believe the rules prohibiting the use of the Office Cost Allowance to purchase property are ambiguous and require clarification.”
The two Paisleys claim a total of £57,200 a year between them in rental allowances for the Ballymena office.
The publicly-funded rent goes to a DUP-linked company called Sarcon 250, which bought the property in 2007 for £500,000.
Mr Frawley's report noted the firm's sole director is Ballymena DUP councillor Sam Hanna, while Companies Registry lists Mr Paisley Jnr's father-in-law James Currie as its only shareholder.
“In the absence of any information to the contrary it must also be assumed that Mr Currie is the beneficial shareholder of the company from which Mr Paisley Jnr is renting constituency accommodation, the costs of which are met by the Assembly with the capital benefit accruing to the company,” the Standards Commissioner stated.
Mr Paisley Jnr has emphasised that the arrangements were put in place to provide constituency accommodation for the DUP.
Mr Frawley's report noted: “Effectively the Office Cost Allowance is being used to create a property asset for a political party.”
The £57,200 joint rental total is significantly higher than other MLA rental claims. Mr O'Loan yesterday said: “In the current economic climate it will be hard to justify to taxpayers spending public money in this way.
“We need a system that is clearly seen to be ethical and does not benefit family members or political parties.”
But DUP MLA Alistair Ross, who sits on the Standards Committee, said: “Ian Paisley Jnr has been exonerated by the committee and Mr O’Loan has been exposed for making unfounded complaints. One-by-one the false claims of the SDLP and others have been kicked away.”
The committee has agreed with Mr Frawley’s finding that Mr Paisley Jnr should declare in the Register of Interests his father-in-law’s role in Sarcon 250.
Comissioner’s report leaves some stones unturned...
By David Gordon
For a document that has been almost 15 months in the making, the report issued this week by Stormont standards watchdog Tom Frawley leaves some unresolved issues.
Take, for example, the question of the £57,200-a-year rental expenses paid out by the public purse for the DUP Ballymena office.
Mr Frawley concluded this total was “significantly in excess of what might be regarded as a normal market rent”.
But he also cited advice from the Commissioner for Valuation that the £57,200 was “understandable” in commercial terms.
That was on the basis that the landlord Sarcon 250 “needed a return” on its investment in fitting out the premises for the two Paisleys.
Mr Frawley did not quote any figure for how much the company had invested in fitting-out costs.
He quoted Ian Paisley Jnr stating that Sarcon 250 makes no profit, as the rent is used to pay off the mortgage.
But there was no reference in the report as to how this absence of profit tallied with the concept of a commercial return.
And whether taxpayers should be footing the bill for such a return was also not addressed.