Thursday, August 19, 2010

There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's...

There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's...

Irish embassy staff are living it large and running up massive bills on everything from lavish meals in top restaurants to furniture from upmarket stores. Ken Foxe, Public Affairs Correspondent, finds out how ambassadors are spoiling themselves, at our expense

They are our representatives abroad and have the privilege of working in some of the most desirable cities in the world. Now it seems that our ambassadors and embassy staff have learned a trick or two from their political bosses when it comes to the expenses system.

Hundreds of thousands of euro have been charged to government-issued credit cards by our men in Havana, and elsewhere.

Meals costing over €2,000, NBA basketball tickets, wine at off-licences, home furnishings, pictures and congestion charges were all paid for by credit cards, with the bill inevitably picked up by the taxpayer.

The credit cards were held at a selection of embassies abroad including Brussels, London, the Hague, Chicago, New York and Paris.

The largest bills were run up at the embassy in Chicago, where the cost of official entertainment frequently ran to several thousand dollars a month.

In February 2007, a credit-card statement listed a $690 (€530) transaction for tickets to see the Chicago Bulls basketball team in action.

A month later, embassy officials travelled to Texas for St Patrick's Day, where one dinner at the Café Annie cost $767 (€590).

Several of the most exclusive restaurants in Chicago saw plenty of business coming from the Irish government.

One restaurant, the Greek Islands, was visited month after month, with one meal there in August 2007 costing $837 (€643).

On another occasion, diplomats chowed down at Rosebud Prime Steaks in Chicago and ran up a bill of $1,398 (€1,075).

St Patrick's Day routinely witnessed massive expenditure, with the festivities of 2008 resulting in a $6,290 (€4,837) bill from the Westin Michigan Hotel.

Another frequent addition to the credit-card bill was Binny's Beverage Depot, an upmarket Chicago off-licence, where the bill in June 2008 was $1,876 (€1,443).

October of that year also proved costly, with a $5,018 (€3,860) bill charged to the card, which included a $2,485 (€1,911) tab at Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans.

Also charged to a separate card that month was the purchase of a sofa for $1,600 (€1,230).

Two days in Houston in November 2008 came with a price tag of more than $4,000 (€3,076), which included a $2,064 (€1,587) bill at the swish Pesces restaurant.

Bills of more than £13,000 (€15,000) a month were run up at the embassy in London where £10,124.20 (€12,228) was spent at the Radisson Hotel in Liverpool for a suite of rooms in June 2008.

Monthly transactions, listed only as "The Labour Party" and "www.conservativeparty.com", were also charged on a monthly basis at £272 (€328) each.

The card was also used for the upkeep of embassy cars with £1,063 (€1,283) charged at BMW Battersea, £309 (€373) at Kwikfit the following month, and £1,696 (€2,048) on the city's congestion charge.

A stereo or other sound equipment was also charged to the taxpayer at a cost of £975 (€1,777) and purchased from Bose Samsung in the centre of London.

Significant home furnishing bills were run up at the embassy in New York, where in September 2007 almost $7,000 (€5,383) was spent at two major retailers.

Bills of $1,530 (€1,176) and $2,409 (€1,852) were charged at Bloomingdales while two more transactions of $1,552 (€1,193) and $1,259 (€968) were made at exclusive interior design store Scully & Scully on Park Avenue.

The following month, another $2,205 (€1,695) was charged at Scully & Scully for "residence furniture" with another $2,487 (€1,912) spent the next month on "kitchen goods".

The home-improvement bills did not end there and the following May another $1,500 (€1,153) was spent at Gracious Home New York.

In September 2008, one of the largest charges of all was made for $5,380 (€4,137) at Polo New York, the famous clothing store.

A year later, the embassy spent close to $9,000 (€6,921) in a single month, with $6,000 (€4,614) paid out to tigerdirect.com, a computer firm, and another $2,991 (€2,300) paid to Amazon.com.

In Paris, details of payments for 2009 have only been made available, with €10,673 spent, more than half of which went on home furnishings.

At the Irish embassy in Ottawa, Canada, significant bills were also accrued, with around CA$1,500 (€1,107) spent at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto in May 2007 and another CA$620 (€457) spent at the "flag shop" in Ottawa.

The embassy also paid for two hotel stays in Jamaica.

The first charge was made on 20 December for CA$780 (€575) at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel with another CA$778 (€574) paid out on 9 January. A further charge of CA$136 (€100) was made at the Cable Beach Resort in the Bahamas on 22 January.

A sum of almost CA$30,000 (€22,000) was spent on furnishing the new ambassadorial residence in November and December of last year, with CA$2,737 (€2,020) spent at Sears and a further CA$7,989 at Jordash, a kitchen supplier.

Embassy staff kept in shape at the Fitness Depot in Ottawa, spending CA$3,082 (€2,275) on membership fees.

The cards at the Embassy and Permanent Representation in Brussels were frequently used to purchase flights back and forth to Dublin, as well as rail tickets, including a €645 trip on the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to London.

Significant fuel bills of up to €600 a month kept the embassy limousine on the road with regular car-wash costs of €252 also billed to the taxpayer.

The card was also used for the purchase of flowers in Ireland and in Belgium at a cost of €107.95.

Other more significant items of expenditure were also charged, with a €2,263 bill from an electronic appliance store in Brussels.

One of the smallest bills was on the official card in Berlin, where two transactions at Ikea were logged costing €758.80 and €358 each. Another charge of €103 at a pharmacy was also billed to the official account.

A statement said: "The Department of Foreign Affairs operates a restrictive policy for the use of corporate credit cards for official expenditure.

"The use of credit cards in making payments is subject to the same authorization and control procedures as other forms of payment.

"While the credit card companies require that the accounts be operated by named authorized signatories, it must be stressed that they are used exclusively for official, rather than personal use."

Comment:

These abuses of the public trust are nothing short of obscene! In a recent article featured in this blog I highlighted similar abuses by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his predecessors in that office. I thought at the time that, regardless of having held that esteemed office, they were afforded privileges far beyond what they should receive in retirement. This article proves that those in public office and, indeed, many others in government positions in Ireland are truly “a privileged class”. We read each day in the Irish papers of the deplorable state of the economy there following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and yet these abuses continue unabated while Irish taxpayers and their families are expected to shoulder the burden of their excesses. Have they no shame?

Jack Meehan, Past National President

Ancient Order of Hibernians in America

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