Saturday, May 15, 2021

The View from the Blue from the Waterford News & Star, May 4 edition

I’VE always been suspicious of the Freedom of Information process.The premise is simple enough. Every citizen of the country is entitled to request public documents, which can include memos, emails, texts sent from public officials and basically any kind of document that’s used by a publicly funded department (and there are a lot of those). It’s designed to promote transparency and inspire confidence in the public service, however, it’s exactly as flawed as you would expect it to be.

When I started out as a journalist, getting to know FOI for the first time, I asked the most obvious question of all – “what’s stopping them from simply not providing potentially incriminating documents?” As it happens, the answer I believe is absolutely nothing.

One of my most high profile experiences of the FOI system involved the mortuary at UHW. It was where I learned a lesson that most lawyers are taught on day one of law school – never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. This is an integral part of the Freedom of Information game. If I’m on a fishing expedition, I have no idea what the request will uncover, and more importantly, if I’ve received all the relevant information. In 2019, when I was trying to get hold of a letter written by four Consultant Pathologists at University Hospital Waterford, I had the advantage of knowing, firstly, that the letter existed, and secondly, when it was written and who it was written by. Armed with this knowledge, the Department couldn’t deny that the letter existed, which sometimes happens in the FOI world.

Instead, the South South West Hospital Group decided to refuse my request for the document, saying that it “wasn’t in the public interest”. Now, with everything that we know now, and with the knowledge that this simple FOI request ended up with Waterford getting a brand new mortuary building, do you think that it was in the public’s interest?

The fact that I was refused access to that document angered someone in the HSE so much that I was anonymously sent the letter anyway. Sadly, this is something that rarely happens.

In recent months, I’ve had a really tough time playing the Freedom of Information game – this time with Minister Simon Harris’s Department of Higher Education and two colleges – Institute of Technology Tralee and Cork Institute of Technology. It all revolves around two consultants – Tom Boland and Ellen Hazelkorn, and their consultancy firm BH Associates. These people must wonder what it is I have against them, and the answer is nothing. I don’t know them personally at all. They just happen to be at the centre of a very worrying breakdown in Freedom of Information. 

There are very strict European rules about procurement in the public service. Essentially, if you’re a public department, such as a college, or a Government Department, or a local authority, you have to publicly advertise a contract over €5k. This is designed to prevent those “jobs for the boys”, which plagued our country for so many years – you know those “it’s not what you know, but who you know”. The tender process is designed to protect the public’s best interests i.e. the best person and the best value.

I asked Simon Harris’ Department of Higher Education for all the documents relating to the hiring of Boland and Hazelkorn because it happened so fast I was sure they didn’t adhere to procurement rules. Harris’ Department denied any involvement in the hiring process, saying that it was managed completely by WIT and IT Carlow. I issued Freedom of Information requests to those colleges and received a plethora of documents that showed that the procurement process wasn’t adhered to. The documents also contained correspondence from the Assistant General Secretary of the Department of Higher Education, where he facilitates the hiring of Boland and Hazelkorn. So there you go, Simon Harris’ Department weren’t being very upfront with the truth. 

A few weeks ago Simon Harris posted the following tweet, “Just finished a very good meeting with Tom Boland & Professor Ellen Hazelkorn who we have appointed to help drive the Technological University of the South East.” His department spent so long denying any involvement in it and then he goes and tweets it.

I’ve run out of words for this week so apologies for having to go into a two parter again but the second part is as important as the first and I believe the public have a right to know that public departments are, in many cases, doing everything they can to prevent journalists like me from accessing information that can either embarrass them, discredit them, or worse. Social Media warriors complain about journalists and the media all the time but we really are your first and last line of defence against corruption, and if I didn’t believe that as strongly as I do, I wouldn’t be a journalist.

 

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WATERFORD NEWS & STAR: June 14, 1991