Government officials have been facing questions at a Stormont committee over a failure to properly control a quango which collapsed with debts of £1.5m.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure was criticised in an Audit Office report for its poor oversight of the Northern Ireland Events Company.
Its former chairman Mervyn Elder told MLAs he was glad to have the opportunity to come to the committee.
“This has been a cloud over my private and public life,” he said.
The company was created to boost Northern Ireland’s image as a venue for high-profile sports and music events, like concerts at Stormont.
It was funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, but collapsed in 2007 after its financial problems came to light.
Last week’s Audit Office report said Northern Ireland Events Company (NIEC) chief executive, Janice McAleese, was involved in fabricating documents to cover-up financial problems before they emerged in 2007.
It said DCAL “appeared to have complete trust” in her and “did not apply a satisfactory level of challenge”.
Whistleblower complaints were also not investigated thoroughly enough.
The report found that Mr Elder “appears to have sought to shield Ms McAleese from criticism, both during and after her time at the NIEC”.
It also said he withheld its financial problems from the NIEC board.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment ran a six-year investigation into what went wrong at a cost of £1.2m.
Mr Elder, when asked about the appointment of Ms McAleese, said “she was the best that applied”.
Under questioning from Sinn Féin’s Phil Flanagan, Mr Elder accepted that Ms McAleese did not have the third-level qualification in finance that was one of the essential criteria.
Asked what skills or experience Ms McAleese had to show she was qualified to do the job, Mr Elder said: “She had run her own business – she had what we had hoped was financial expertise.”
The DUP’s Trevor Clarke asked former DCAL permanent secretary Paul Sweeney about the actions of the department when a shortfall became apparent in NIEC’s accounts.
“Basically, you give them a pat on the back, they give you a thumbs-up that they are going to listen to you, and they overspend by £1m,” said Mr Clarke.
Mr Sweeney said he “would characterise the department’s oversight of the Northern Ireland events company as being passive”.
“We were insufficiently interrogative and challenging,” he said.
Mr Sweeney, who is now the top civil servant at the Department of Education, said “he did not dissociate himself” from what he called “a debacle”.
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy asked about NIEC’s change of role from sponsorship to promotion.
Mr Sweeney said it had emerged that “a number of the board members were oblivious to the fact the company had morphed from sponsorship into promotion”.
He said the promotional element particularly involved motocross and supermoto motorcycling events.
Among the report’s findings was that there was “potentially” a £262,500 shortfall in gate receipts lodged in the NIEC’s bank account after four motorbike events between 2005 and 2007.
For another event, it said there was no evidence takings were lodged at all.
The SDLP’s John Dallat said that in June 2007 Mr Elder had become aware of “this motocross monstrosity at Desertmartin”.
He asked Mr Elder if he should not have resigned at that point, and suggested that the situation was a “train wreck”.
Mr Elder replied: “I didn’t feel that I was presiding over a train wreck.”
DUP MLA Edwin Poots, who was minister for culture, arts and leisure in 2007, asked what had changed following the scandal.
Mr Poots asked: “What’s to stop somebody falsifying signatures, presenting false audits and millions of pounds being lost again?”
David Carson of DCAL said it had “created a seismic change within the department”.
DUP MLA Trevor Clarke asked current DCAL permanent secretary Dr Denis McMahon about the falsifying of records identified in the Audit Office report.
Dr McMahon outlined the falsification of documents in connection with an NIEC board meeting that agreed a £200,000 overdraft when the meeting never actually took place.
Mr Elder said he was able to confirm to the inspectors that the signature on the document was not his, while Dr McMahon agreed to have the papers forensically checked.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs asked Mr Elder why the company had been involved in motocross events.
Mr Elder said the board knew there was potential in the sport, but the interest was led by Ms McAleese.
“She had leathers, she had a bike, so that was her thing,” he said.
Parliamentary reports show first speaker only - follow this lnk for the full transcription.
Articles may come from parliamentary reports, various public news feeds and Google News Search. Content is republished here for context. Copyright is respected and remains with the original author at all times. Original Article:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-politics-34457837