An SDLP Assembly Member has admitted giving an annual £16,000 Policing Board allowance to his wife for research work, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Conall McDevitt paid the money directly to his spouse Dr Joanne Murphy – an academic and policing reform expert – for the past two years.
But the South Belfast MLA insisted the payment was "completely above board" and declared in the board's annual report.
However, the report does not name Mr McDevitt or another board member who also declared employing a close family relative as a researcher.
Mr McDevitt explained he took legal advice and was told he did not need to include the Policing Board allowance in the Assembly Register of Members' Interests.
And he further revealed that former party leader Margaret Ritchie gave him permission to engage his wife in the research work.
He insisted: "There is no secrecy here.
"The rules allow me to do this and even if she were not my wife, I would still want her because she is an expert in this area.
"I thoroughly checked the matter out and I am not required to declare that in the Assembly register.
"This is entirely separate from my office cost allowances, and in my view it demonstrates that I have complied with all the codes and rules."
Mr McDevitt, who replaced Dominic Bradley on the board in 2011, also said he wanted to make clear that his wife's research – including her recent book Policing For Peace – did not involve any information she had gleaned as part of her work for the Policing Board.
Dr Murphy, a lecturer in Queen's University's management school, also wrote Embedding The Peace Process in 2010 and Policing Change in 2011. Mr McDevitt said she had also included her Policing Board work in the register of interests at Queen's.
DUP Policing Board member David McIlveen said that while his behaviour was within the rules, "I do not think it is good form to be doing that, and he should certainly have been more sensible".
He added: "I think if this is going to embarrass the board it will definitely have to be looked at.
"There have been concerns that standing orders are a bit loose in the way they are operated.
"There is a bit more discretion over Assembly allowances and I have some sympathy with elected representatives using family members who they can trust, but less so with an outside body like the Policing Board."
An Assembly statement said: "All Members are required to register family members who benefit directly or indirectly in any way from the Assembly's office cost expenditure.
"MLAs are aware that there is no requirement to register family members who benefit from allowances or expenses arising from any other public office."
The latest controversy came after it emerged earlier this summer that Mr McDevitt had claimed more than £14,000 for research and secretarial work paid to four academics through his wife's firm.
STORY SO FAR
Sinn Fein wants an investigation into payments to a firm set up by SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt's wife. He claimed more than £14,000 for work carried out by JM Consulting. The South Belfast MLA amended the Assembly register to state: "My wife has an interest in a company that has provided research services to me in my capacity as an MLA from March 2010 until November 2011."