[Updated] Another summer storm in a teacup over an MLA’s expenses…

So there’s a stink about Conall McDevitt using his wife’s research company to pay for secretarial work, and research. Tara Mills for BBCNI has most of the detail

For 2010 and 2011 JM Consulting was paid significant sums of money for what was described as ‘research and secretarial’ work.

JM Consulting is Joanne Murphy Consulting – she is a Queen’s University academic and also Mr McDevitt’s wife. But according to the assembly register for both years, when asked if any family member had benefited from office expenses Mr McDevitt said no.

That statement has now been amended and the register now states: “My wife has an interest in a company that has provided research services to me in my capacity as an MLA from March 2010 until November 2011”.

Mr McDevitt’s office expenses – like those of all other MLAs – are published on the assembly website.

Mr McDevitt declined to do an interview, but he said in the past his wife – on a voluntary basis – co-ordinated research services to him in his capacity as an MLA.

He confirmed that £8,000, £4,900, £800 and £600 were paid to four researchers between June 2010 and August 2011.

The problem with it is that most of the action takes place in a grey area in which Mr McDevitt can quite legitimately claim there was no direct benefit to his family. But because of the very greyness of the system they used, he cannot avoid it becoming a story.

In fact most Sinn Fein MLAs commit all their secretarial expenses to party head office and most of their research is done through Research Services Ireland Ltd, a private company co-owned and co-directed by the party’s NI manager of finance.

The only legitimate questions that can be asked in either circumstance are: was it spent on ‘real work’ that had to be done, and was that work done at a ‘realistic rate’. If the answer in every case is ‘yes’ then for Mr McDevitt (or indeed SF’s MLAs) there is, in fact, no substantial story here.

If on the other hand the answer to either is ‘no’, then all hell should break loose.

As to whether any Sinn Fein MLA’s family members have benefited from the party’s control of MLA’s expenses, as things stand that is a matter of private – not public – record.

UPDATE:

I turns out that the BBC have had this story since March or April this year. The timing of its release seems to have been their choice, and theirs alone.

They also (I’m informed) know that there is no limited company as JM Research. Unlike, say, Slugger O’Toole Ltd or Research Ireland Limited, it is not a financially independent body. It’s a marketing brand used in this case to preserve the anonymity of individuals who work in political research.

Slugger further understands that the BBC also know who was employed and in what capacity. Despite some extremely idle speculation in the comments below none are employees of QUB.

They are professional researchers with whom the BBC was reluctantly offered interviews, which they subsequently declined.

The payments went directly to the researchers, and Ms Murphy did not in anyway profit from the work.

In other words, someone in the BBC waited until the McD’s were about to head off on holidays before launching a politically awkward googly without taking the opportunity to check the story first.

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  • IJP

    I think you’ve slightly missed the story here.

    The story is not that Mr McDevitt paid his wife for research work – not only is that perfectly legitimate, but it’s probably good value given her own qualifications.

    Frankly, and I know this isn’t popular, I am in full support of MLAs using their spouses (or other family and friends) if they have obvious skills themselves, precisely because the nature of much of the work is confidential and out-of-hours.

    No, the story here is that Mr McDevitt appears initially to have denied any money went to his family, and then gone to ground (for the first time ever) when a full explanation has been sought.

    When, for the first time ever, he refused to appear in the broadcast media to discuss the issue, he provided a written statement essentially suggesting that the money was just resting in “JM Consulting’s” account before being moved on to the actual researchers.

    This begs the obvious question – why was it not just paid to those researchers? Why on earth would “JM Consulting” have acted as a “research agent” without taking a cut (which it could have done perfectly legitimately)? Quite simply, it is unbelievable.

    In other words, the story is that when given the opportunity to tell the truth, Mr McDevitt disappeared in a manner completely out of character. As he is rarely short of a comment on everything and everyone else, the voting public will understandably find that strange and even inexcusable.

  • Alone and Easy Target

    Has Conall ever turned down an interview before? That is probably a bigger story!

    But yes, when an MLA pays a company as opposed to actually hiring a secretary or PA then it is difficult to account for who benefits and what needs to be declared. At least if someone is hired by an MLA there is a name and contract that can be checked.

  • Mick Fealty

    IJP,

    That’s the grey area I mentioned. But where’s the substance of the problem, other than Conall getting himself tangled in trying to explain something that was not a problem in the first place?

    Perhaps the answer is to diffuse the final destination for that money by setting up a separate service company to process those payments thereby stopping any investigation dead in it tracks?

  • Actually, there is a problem if the company uses some of the money to pay for political activities, as opposed to MLA work.

  • Can I just point out that I was talking to Conall on Monday night.
    He was talking about his holiday plans.
    Either way,Stormont is in Recess, QUB academics traditionally take August off,…and the actual vacation window available to MLAs, QUB academics with two or three primary school children is pretty limited.
    The guy is hard working and capable and as straight as they come and there really doesnt seem to be much of a story.
    On the other hand the substance of the SDLP event at An Feile….which featured Catherine McCartney (sister of Robert) and Breege Quinn (mother of Paul) and Mark Thompson from Relatives for Justice seems a bigger story.

  • You’re very quick to play down the story without knowing the full details and then point to Sinn Féin for contracting out services – but you didn’t give them the same benefit of the doubt when running the blogs on how they paid full time members. I’d say this one has a bit of legs yet.

    Personally I’m curious as to who actually are these “researchers” that worked under her guidance and what were they doing. Are they students and where they working out of Riddel Hall along with Ms Murphy? If so does Queen’s know they’re facilitating a private research facility on behalf on the McDevitt wing of the SDLP? If not what was their standing in regards to tax, insurances and the like?

    Could it be the reason Ms Murphy is saying she didn’t get paid was that she didn’t declare the consultancy as required to do so by her employer QUB to avoid conflicts of interest. For example I notice “JM Consulting” nor indeed any kind of external consultancy activity is mentioned on her QUB research profile which would normally contain such information:

    [Link removed upon request from comment author – Mods]

    Is Mr McDevitt getting tied up in knots in an attempt to protect his partner or himself?

  • ” Either way,Stormont is in Recess, QUB academics traditionally take August off,…and the actual vacation window available to MLAs, QUB academics with two or three primary school children is pretty limited.”

    Nah resits in August fitzjameshorse – the July fortnight or shortly after is still the traditional holiday period for QUB peeps.

  • cynic2

    There are two issues

    1 is it within the rules? prpobably yes

    2 should it be – probably no.

    I don’t buy the ‘my wife receives no benefit’ line. Companies exist to make money. She owns shares in the company. Any money that accrues adds value to her share of the company.She may not draw that benefit yet but unless the company makes losses in perpetuity she makes a profit in the end and if it does make losses why would anyone sane persist with this arrangement.

    Poor wee Conal’s trousers are around his ankles.

    The real question is though, who in the SDLP undid his belt then tipped off the BBC

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    Forget Seán Cavanagh: the “I’m going on holiday – see you” tweet which McDevitt sent just a few hours before the story broke is as cynical as it gets. A vow of silence from a media whore – two fingers up at everyone else.

    To be fair, though, he’s only switched parties once and not thrice like certain others.

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    P.S. We seem to get a new thread here any time a Catholic looks cross-eyed at his Protestant neighbour, yet when a Lord Mayor is assaulted by a mob from a community that, admittedly, is self-imploding, it all goes quiet..

  • FDM

    Ulick 7 August 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Could it be the reason Ms Murphy is saying she didn’t get paid was that she didn’t declare the consultancy as required to do so by her employer QUB to avoid conflicts of interest.

    ————————————-

    Just to emphasise that as long as this work did not conflict with the research/teaching that the lady does at QUB then she has no need to perform the overt act of directly informing QUB of the consultancy activities.

  • cynic2

    Interesting and interesting

    These expenses were posted as Secretarial and Clerical but McDevitt now says the moolah went to 4 academics for research work.

    Fine. But why pay them via his wife? That’s just stupid surely? And there’s a huge team of underemployed civil servants in the Assembly. Why not use them? What research was worth all this extra money?

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    Interesting that Ms Murphy hasn’t also kept a twitter vow of silence (or ‘Twittercation’ as her husband put it) since yesterday.
    As cynic notes, it’ll be fascinating to find out the source of this leak.

  • FDM

    ck (profile)

    7 August 2013 at 1:39 pm

    @FDM
    There umpteen reasons why a QUB academic should be declaring external consultancy moral, ethical, commercial and academic. Increasing the amount of external consultancy was even part of the last VCs great crusades to the extent that the University now has a Directorate devoted solely to facilitating “Research Enterprise” of which consultancy would be a major component.

    http://www.qub.ac.uk/directorates/ResearchEnterprise/

    Now for the life of me, I can’t think of one legitimate reason why Ms Murphy would want to hide her consultancy activities from the University and other prospective clients.

    ———————————————

    If the consultancy is related technically [subject matter/field of study] with the research work you do for the University then QUB gets a percentage of your fees.

    I think its somewhere inbetween 25 and 50%. I would have to look at my old contract, which I do not have to hand. I think the decision to take a percentage rests with the School.

    To provide an example. If I do research in physics for QUB. I then do consultancy work on an external engineering project unrelated to my research field. There is no compunction on me to inform Queen’s of the work. That is the way my old contract read. Perhaps it has changed, but I see no conflict of interests there and no necessity to inform QUB.

  • Mick Fealty

    Ulick,

    I am not immune to making mistakes. Nor have I ever claimed to. But there are a number sound reasons to question the wholesale transfer of SF’s MLA’s salaries and large chunks of their research and secretarial public sector budget into the private domain.

    One of them is the rhetorical ‘suggestions’ you are making in respect of Ms Murphy. “Suggestions” which are now in play after the original attack line proved (after a cursory inspection) not to be the great power play it might have seemed.

    I’m not saying you cannot ask the question, but like the story itself, you’d need to provide probable cause to allay the impression that you are just out to play the man/woman at all and any costs…

  • @FDM
    Sounds like things have changed since your day but even if they hadn’t we still don’t know the nature of the work so cannot judge on whether or not there is a conflict.

    Anyhow the way things work now is the University has a research portal that pulls in information on each academic from a number of different internal sources including their own research profile & publications, research & contracts, research output, experts database and academic CV among other things. This is intended to provide a rich and thorough description of each persons expertise so that can be picked up by external bodies.

  • Probable cause? – none of it stacks up Mick.

  • roadnottaken

    No offence Mick, but that whole piece was a quote from the BBC (who I’d say haven’t left this one alone just yet), followed by “Oh look! Shinners!”… Rubbish.

    There are questions to answer, and the quality of comments on here prove exactly why there is. I look forward to seeing this grow legs, and the inevitable ‘I was wrong’ blog.

  • Mick Fealty

    None taken. But what am I missing?

  • michael-mcivor

    This could be the end of the Conall leadership attempts-

    wonder if it was another SDLP member who first noticed this pay-slip up-and sent this story to the media-

  • cynic2

    “This could be the end of the Conall leadership attempts”

    ….what a pity we might miss the chance to see that

  • Mick Fealty

    Right, here’s the crack, so far as I can get it. The BBC have had this story since March or April this year. The timing of its release is their choice, and theirs alone.

    They also (I’m informed) know that there is no limited company as JM Research. Unlike, say, Slugger O’Toole Ltd or dare I mention it, Research Ireland Limited, it is not a financially independent body.

    It’s a marketing brand used in this case to preserve the anonymity of individuals who work in political research. The BBC also know who was employed and in what capacity. None are employees of QUB (thanks for the red herring Ulick, it will be taken into account the next time you decide to run solo with another brilliant ‘idea’).

    They are professional researchers with whom the BBC was reluctanly offered interviews. For reasons best known to themselves they declined the offer.

    The payments went directly to the researchers, and Ms Murphy did not in anyway profit from the work.

    In other words, someone in the BBC waited until the McD’s were about to head off on holidays before launching an awkward googly without taking the opportunity to do due diligence on the matter.

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    Christ, if that’s the case then I withdraw my comments re. McD’s sudden withdrawal from twitter and apologise for my own cynicism.
    What has he done to p*ss off the BBC, then? They go out of their way not to tread on the DUP until the recess, but go after McDevitt like this? I wonder if he’s consulted his lawyers…

    Hilariously, their Saturday night Radio Ulster bulletins led (yes, led) with the fact that Phillip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg will be seen in public in two weeks, and ignored Tyrone’s triumph to concentrate entirely on regional cricket. C. 40,000 Ulstermen were in attendance at the former event. Absolutely pathetic from the BBC as ever.

  • cynic2

    “someone in the BBC waited until the McD’s were about to head off on holidays before launching an awkward googly”

    Awwww bless. So if these ‘academics’ don’t work at Queens where do they do their ‘academic’ work? UU? Stanmillis? The Met?

    And why so coy about doing work for the SDLP? Is it THAT shameful to associate with them?

  • cynic2

    “their Saturday night Radio Ulster bulletins led (yes, led) with the fact that Phillip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg will be seen in public in two weeks, and ignored Tyrone’s triumph”

    Well in audience interest terms that seems fair to me. Think of the numbers who are

    from tyrone
    listen to radio ulster
    are probably male
    are still sober
    give a monkeys about a GAA match

    and you could probably fit them into most Dungannon pubs

  • cynic2

    “someone in the BBC waited”

    ….its those bloody securicrats you know. Conal is such a force in the land taking Republicanism forward that they had to torpedo him. Enemies of the peace process. Etc etc Etc

    Does he need a Human Rights Lawyer?

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    Getting off-topic, but you reckon that more people in Ulster are interested in north-west regional cricket than the business end of an All-Ireland championship? I’d reconsider if I were you.

  • iluvni

    Republicans certainly have it in for ‘north west regional cricket’.

  • DC

    Does his mobile phone not work on holiday?

    I really feel for him like that he goes on holiday and has to make a phone call that he doesn’t want to make as he’d rather be relaxing with family and would prefer not having to do this kind of stuff; but – MLAs holidays are like teachers’ ones so give over.

    It’s as well he has you Mick to do his PR and to take that awkward ‘3am call’!

    This one’s for you Mick, I now know who I want to take that 3am call – http://youtu.be/L-qyrLnOYVw

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    Ah, the cretinous spirit of UPC lingers on.
    Care to substantiate your idiot remarks? No? Thought not. I love cricket, but an All-Ireland QF match involving two Ulster teams (and attended by around 40,000 people from those two counties) is surely more newsworthy than amateur cricket.

  • IJP

    DC and others are right.

    If he had nothing to hide, he would either have said he was completely unavailable, or alternatively done a media interview by phone answering all the questions put.

    As it is, he was able to produce a written statement arrogantly thinking no one would ask the obvious follow-up.

    So there is a problem, Mick, and it is that Mr McDevitt, so long the moral guardian, is telling us things concerning how he spends our money which are simply unbelievable. He owes us a clearer explanation and, frankly, were this anyone else he would be only too quick to ask the same questions.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, I’m not going to gainsay that IJP, but that’s different story altogether than the one proffered us in the first place…

  • IJP

    Mick

    We can pursue this tomorrow when I’m not “phubbing”, but bluntly I think you’re being spun a line.

    The allegations you are making against the BBC, essentially accusing it of outright partiality, are extremely serious. To be frank, I don’t believe a word of what you have been told above.

    Essentially you are telling us payments went to “JM Research” so the actual researchers could remain anonymous? Why?! What obvious nonsense.

    I would advise you in all seriousness to retract what you have written above. I suspect you are being spun a line yet it’ll be up to you and you alone to prove it.

  • @Mick

    “. None are employees of QUB (thanks for the red herring Ulick, it will be taken into account the next time you decide to run solo with another brilliant ‘idea’).”

    WTF? I never said anything of the sort. I speculated she might have used student and said nothing about QUB employees. Are you saying these “researchers” are not students or former students?

  • Zig70

    Well, we know for certain that if the McD report came from the radio Ulster sports department then it wasn’t an SF inspired stitch-up.

  • cynic2

    “you reckon that more people in Ulster are interested in north-west regional cricket ”

    No

    Royal baby?

    Yes

  • cynic2

    “Does his mobile phone not work on holiday?”

    he has spent all his expenses on research and cant afford the call charges

  • Comrade Stalin

    Oops. Conall finally ‘fessed up. But now he’s blocking everyone on twitter who asks him about it. Wasn’t this the guy who kicked off his political career writing articles here about modern politicians embracing social media ?

  • Son of Strongbow

    All power corrupts.

    Ulster power cashes in? Absolutely!

  • Comrade Stalin,
    would you not agree that Conall seems more open than your party colleague, Mr Lunn?

  • DC

    Even still Fitzjames, Mr Lunn has form nonetheless, but and it’s a big but, he isn’t an irritating moraliser like McDevitt who can be relied upon for forever running to the media to point out faults with others, usually point out problems with other people’s behaviours – usually loyalists.

    and then like a wee rat he runs for cover himself when his own is called into question.

    slithering off into the sunset on holidays for a while.

    slither

    slither

  • Barnshee

    I am sure the appropriate tax and NICs has been paid to our “friends ” in HMRC so whats the problem?

  • Ah…so Trevor Lunn is more “likeable” than Conall McDevitt?
    Ive never met Trevor Lunn but Conall is a decent guy.
    I think what irritates his enemies is not his perceived moralising.
    The reason he is not liked is that he is effective.

  • DC

    oh hold on i am getting confused.

    he has fessed up but now he claims it was for research linked to policing board work.

    i now however think mick was sold a pig in a poke defending the case as above, as the story now seems to stand up regardless of the ‘ independent researchers getting all the money’ counter.

    mick, he paid money to his wife for research close to 30k.

  • DC

    ‘Trevor Lunn is more “likeable” than Conall McDevitt?’

    No just Trevor is less likely to hit the media moralising although he has form, but still you can see why people are keen to single out McDevitt and say well, let’s hear what you have to say for yourself.

  • I have nothing against moralising.
    I do a lot of it myself.
    So do a lot of people on this message board.

  • DC

    I dunno, even Mick’s defence of him now looks a bit greasy.

    OK so he didn’t use his stormont expenses to pay her but used policing board ones instead, same difference?

  • FDM

    Conall is an SDLP MLA.

    We know from experience that every single SDLP elected representative and voter is basically a mixture between Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

    Therefore any accusation of wrong doing by Conall and/or any member of the SDLP can be dismissed out of hand as by default and obviously completely without foundation. How very dare you!

    Hey what is that pig sound I hear? Who left that trough there?

  • Well Im a SDLP voter and Indeed I have always considered myself a bit like Ghandi (although Im not vegetarian) and Martin Luther King.
    but surely the Alliance crowd have always been a bit…ya know….preachy.
    A cross between Malcolm Muggeridge and the Vicar of Dibley.

  • tomthumbuk

    It seemed a bit strange, that when he was asked by Tara Mills if his wife did research, he replied that ” she gave advice”. I recall that he did this twice.
    It would be interesting to know what research she did.
    It seems a bit odd that someone is retained as a researcher on an going basis, at a considerable salary.
    I mean does the taxpayer get to know what they were researching, or do we just take it on blind faith that we are getting value for money from an MLA’s missus?
    Flashback to when Ian Paisley had his son Ian Jnr. on a £12,000 p.a. earner as an advisor.

  • BluesJazz

    Vatuan aediles furunculi rog

  • David Crookes

    Thanks for that brilliant anagram, BluesJazz.

    VATUAN AEDILES FURUNCULI ROG = CONALL VIRTUE AURA GUISE FUND

  • Barnshee

    Ah leave the child alone -so he slipped his missus a few quid

    Having swallowed the egregious elephant that is Stormont to cavil and strain at the gnat involved here is very poor taste

  • DC

    McDevitt has quit politics!

    Unreal.

  • Comrade Stalin

    fjh,

    would you not agree that Conall seems more open than your party colleague, Mr Lunn?

    “colleague” ? Hardly. I pay a non-concessionary subscription and get a newsletter every couple of months and an invite to the odd coffee morning. If I join Sinn Féin do I get to call myself Martin McGuinness’ colleague ? That’d be cool.

    But seriously. Lunn is obviously employing a family member and, further obviously, and in typical Trevor style, he has told anyone asking about it to go and get stuffed. Since he doesn’t do twitter or facebook or whatever, there is no further story unless the media wish to make an issue out of it (which they appear not to have). I wouldn’t shed any tears if they did frankly, I would derive fairly substantial satisfaction from watching him squirm in public over such an issue but he’s not going to allow that.

    This is different from a shiny fresh faced MLA who makes a big deal out of facebook, twitter, blogs and all the rest; and then starts censoring these out when it turns sour. A politician savvy in the ways of the modern media should know that openly shutting down a conversation on the internet is a sure way to stir up controversy.