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Minister in row over regulator's oil firm role

Lorna Siggins - Irish Times

FIANNA FÁIL energy spokesman Éamon Ó Cuív has described as “extraordinary” Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney’s response to the financial involvement of a State regulatory agency chief in a publicly listed mineral exploration company.

Mr Coveney has told Mr Ó Cuív that there does “not appear to be any conflict of interest” in the fact that a senior public official – Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) executive chairman Peter Whelan – holds substantial shares and is on the board of the US Oil and Gas company. The Dublin-based exploration company, founded by the late Waterford businessman Jimmy Guiry, holds assets in Nevada, USA.

Mr Whelan is a full-time, paid head of the State authority, which regulates all fishing vessels operating within Ireland’s 200-mile limit, and implements national and EU seafood safety rules.

He purchased over 400,000 shares in the exploration company last year, for which he paid £200,000 and €40,000 on two separate occasions, and had an additional 55,000 shares transferred to him on July 14th last for “services rendered”.

In announcing his appointment to its board on November 21st last, US Oil and Gas said Mr Whelan “works closely with the Office of the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the gardaí”.

It noted that he “advises Government ministers on policy and enforcement and has overall responsibility for corporate governance issues”, as well as being “directly accountable to a parliamentary committee on budget expenditure and organisational performance”.

It said that Mr Whelan would head up US Oil and Gas’s audit and remuneration committees.

It listed his directorships as Sea Fisheries Protection Authority chairman and director of Curran Communications Ltd.

Mr Whelan was unavailable for comment.

Last month in a Dáil question, Mr Ó Cuív asked Mr Coveney if he or his department had consulted the Standards in Public Office Commission in relation to the matter, and if the Minister would make a statement.

Mr Coveney responded that “it does not appear at this point that there is any conflict of interest issue arising in this matter”, and said he was “not in a position to comment any further at this time”.

A spokesman for the Minister told The Irish Times yesterday that Mr Coveney had answered two parliamentary questions from Mr Ó Cuív on the matter recently, and had “nothing further to add on the matter at present”.

Under section 47 of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, which established the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority in 2007, a member of the authority “shall not hold any other office or employment in respect of which emoluments are payable”.

As public servants, Sea Fisheries Protection Authority members and and staff are also bound by legislation including the Ethics in Public Office Act 2005. The Sea Fisheries Protection Authority code of business conduct, published in 2011, says that employees “shall not involve themselves in outside business/employment interests which would be in conflict or potential conflict with the business of the SFPA”.

Mr Ó Cuív said that Mr Coveney’s response to date on the issue was “extraordinary” and he believed that “at the very least” he should offer a confidential briefing.

The Fianna Fáil spokesman said he intended to raise the issue at Oireachtas committee level.

Posted Date: 
28 January 2012