A VEC used taxpayers’ money to engage a barrister to see if it had been defamed by a newspaper investigation into its finances — despite a departmental warning not to spend money on such legal opinion.
County Cork VEC said it did not know what the bill would be for the solicitors and the barrister.
However, its acting CEO, Joan Russell, confirmed she had met the senior counsel along with CCVEC chairman Gerry Kelly and the external solicitor advising it on this issue, which arose from an Irish Examiner investigation.
Yesterday’s meeting of CCVEC was briefed on the barrister’s opinion, which said taking a case, on the basis that the VEC itself was defamed, would be costly and protracted.
The committee then voted to drop the issue.
Ms Russell had said that the minutes of its February meeting, which discussed the fallout of the investigation, were used to inform the barrister.
She said she did not believe a written brief existed. And she did not detail whether the lawyers’ opinion was sought on specific newspaper reports and subsequent radio interviews.
At a February vote, CCVEC members authorised her to seek legal opinion on whether any member of the committee or official was defamed by comments arising from the investigation into apparent waste at projects it ran across the county.
Ms Russell said when details of that private vote, to approve spending money on exploratory legal advice, appeared shortly afterwards in the Irish Examiner, the department intervened.
Ms Russell said an official phoned her saying not to pay for legal advice "for any individual".
Ms Russell explained her position to CCVEC yesterday following criticism from committee member Humphrey Deegan.
He looked for the details given to the legal team and the specific instructions from the department.
He said he had sought copies of this correspondence from the department but had not been sent it.
"The VEC was told not to seek this legal advice and it is extraordinary that we have now got ourselves into this bother," he said.
At this juncture, Ms Russell warned members that the original discussion on possible defamation had been discussed privately in a committee session and it was now being aired in public because it was part of departmental correspondence.
Gerry Kelly said what had originally been an in-camera discussion should remain that way.
Questioning on the issue during the public session of the meeting was brought to a halt and opened again during the private section.
The monthly meeting of CCVEC was also told the department had written to the committee seeking further information on specific issues raised in the course of the newspaper investigation.
This included the Omar B sail training programme that was based in Bantry while its flagship vessel was on blocks in Baltimore.
Journalist: Conor Ryan