Concerns over awarding of €50m contract for Irish Water’s call centre

Amid claims of favouritism, Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy revealed how then-environment minister Phil Hogan was directly lobbied months before the four-year contract was handed out to the company involved.

Speaking during what was potentially the last leaders questions debate before the election is called, the opposition TD raised further questions about a €90m investment in the same company last November by a private equity firm which weeks earlier received €125m from the national pension reserve fund.

And despite denials by the firm involved, she said the situations raise “obvious questions of probity” and suggest favouring of the company for Government funds.

Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by Ms Murphy and seen by the Irish Examiner show MKC Communications’ political lobbyist and former Progressive Democrats official Stephen O’Byrnes contacted Mr Hogan’s then private secretary Yvonne Hyland on February 15, 2012.

The email said he was seeking a meeting with “Phil” as he was doing “some work with a Cork-based company called Abtran” and its marketing director, Ger Fitzgerald, wanted to meet to “get an opportunity of outlining to the minister the activities they undertake”.

Four hours later, Ms Hyland confirmed Mr Hogan wanted to meet and a February 27 discussion was arranged with Mr O’Byrnes and Mr Fitzgerald. A year later, in March 2013, Abtran was awarded the €50m contract to run Irish Water’s call centre.

Speaking in the Dáil, Ms Murphy said the decision needs to be examined as, despite Abtran being involved in the botched handling of the SUSI student grant scheme and the State property tax scheme, it was given the lucrative contract.

In a separate question to Tánaiste Joan Burton, Ms Murphy said that, in November 2015, a private equity firm called Carlyle Cardinal Ireland invested an undisclosed sum understood to be €90m in Abtran.

Weeks earlier, the private equity firm received €125m from the national pension reserve fund, leading the opposition TD to ask: “Do you know what that money is for? Are you concerned about what appears to be favouring of Abtran for Government funds?”

Ger Fitzgerald, the Abtran official who met with Mr Hogan, did not respond to calls, while his brother — Abtran CEO Michael Fitzgerald — was also unavailable when contacted.

While an Abtran spokesman confirmed the meeting occurred, he insisted the contracts followed strict public procurement guidelines.

“In common with many other companies, Abtran would occasionally request introductory meetings including from time to time, officials and ministers. These meetings would be requested openly and on the record as was done in 2012,” he said.

The spokesman described the discussions with Mr Hogan as “information meetings” needed because “this was a reasonably new Government”.

He said it had nothing to do with the upcoming Irish Water contract.

The spokesperson further said the investment in November 2015 and financial requirements to continue the Irish Water contract are entirely unconnected and that the private equity deal was “very simply on commercial merits”.

The Brussels office for Mr Hogan, who is now EU Agriculture Commissioner, said all queries about his time as a minister should be directed to the Department of Environment, which had yet to respond last night.

An Irish Water spokesperson said the contract decision “fully complies with public sector procurement guidelines” imposed after “a thorough Europe-wide public procurement process”.