A report into the procurement process of Ireland’s national broadband plan has found it was not influenced by former minister Denis Naughten or businessman David McCourt.
The review by independent assessor Peter Smyth said it was satisfied that neither the former communications minister or Mr McCourt influenced the tender process after it emerged the pair held a number of private meetings and dinners.
Mr Naughten resigned his Cabinet seat last month amid controversy over the dinners he had with the head of the last remaining bidder for the multimillion-euro state contract for the rollout of high-speed broadband.
The review was commissioned by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar following concerns about the procurement process.
In a statement Mr Naughten said he welcomed the findings.
The report said: “I also believe that the decision by the former minister to resign, thereby removing himself from the process, insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt.
“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.”
But in its conclusion it said the meetings gave “cause for concern”.
“Due to 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,” it added.
“Therefore I cannot unequivocally state that the state-led intervention under the NBP (national broadband plan) was not discussed at the meetings outside of the procurement process.”
Mr Smyth considered whether the former minister was privy to any sensitive information that would have been of benefit to the consortium Granahan McCourt or whether he took any decisions within the process that benefited Granahan McCourt.
Minister for Communications Richard Bruton said the Government has accepted the findings.
Speaking at a press conference after the report was published he said: “The problem that arose is the fact that some of these meetings were not minuted and there was no independent person there, so there could have been an opportunity for a discussion to occur on a tender which should have been insulated from that process.
“That’s where the cause for concern arose that the auditor has identified.”
During leaders’ questions, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said: “What stands out (in the report) is the extraordinary level of connectivity between Granahan McCourt and the former minister – 18 meetings, nine telephone calls and five dinners.
“The majority of all of those, particularly the 12-minute phone call, were clearly on the broadband plan.
“To me it’s a series on a level of engagement that’s without precedent in terms of a bidding process, in terms of a ministerial involvement with a lead bidder.
“I think it’s extraordinary, by any yardstick.
“One has to question why Mr McCourt would feel it so necessary to be in such regular engagement with the minister.”
Mr Varakar said: “That report indicates that the process has not been tainted so now we go on to next steps and that’s the assessment of final bid.
“The final bid was received by the department and the final tender was received by the department on September 18 and that is now being evaluated, and a decision will be made in the next couple of weeks as to whether we can go forward with it.”
Mr Naughten said: “As minister my job required me to meet investors from all sectors under the remit of my former department, whether they were investors from telecoms, renewable energy, environment or natural resources. These investors are the men and women who provide jobs in our country.
“My sole objective throughout this process, during my time as minister, was to deliver much promised broadband to rural Ireland.
“I am proud of the work that I achieved which has ensured that over one third of rural homes will, by next June, have access to up to 1000mbps pure fibre broadband.
“I hope that once this procurement process has been completed that the remaining homes, farms and businesses will get access to this technology.
“This should now be the only goal of our government and members of Dail Eireann at this point and I urge colleagues not to succumb to those who want to make a political issue of the NBP for their own ends and not that of the country as a whole.”