SIPO opens Varadkar probe after he misled earlier inquiry into undeclared donations

SIPO has opened an inquiry into undeclared donations received by taoiseach Leo Varadkar after it emerged he misled the commission during a 2019 probe.

The state ethics commission was forced to write to Varadkar again this week after he ignored correspondence it sent three months earlier seeking answers on undeclared donations – which include a payment from attorney-general Rossa Fanning.

Another two of the donations are from PR company Edelman. SIPO told the taoiseach this week that Edelman has contradicted Varadkar’s explanation as to why he didn’t declare its 2018 and 2022 donations, which both exceeded the legal limit of €1,000.

Varadkar claimed to SIPO in 2019 that Edelman’s 2018 donation was reimbursed by third parties. SIPO however told Varadkar yesterday, "Edelman has confirmed that it was not reimbursed by the individuals."

Varadkar has been the subject of the fresh SIPO inquiry since this summer, with the commission now asking the Fine Gael leader why he also didn’t declare a 2018 donation from attorney-general Rossa Fanning. It is understood that Varadkar, when asked at the time why he didn’t disclose Fanning’s payment, used the same explanation as he did with Edelman’s donation, which the consultancy has rejected.  

The taoiseach hasn’t, according to SIPO’s latest mail, responded to its earlier correspondence, dated early May of this year, with the commission writing to Varadkar this week to tell him it would “appreciate a comprehensive response” by the end of this month. A spokesperson for Varadkar said, "A detailed response is being prepared and will be furnished to SIPO before the deadline."

‘We have received correspondence from a company, Edelman, concerning donations to you’

Leo Varadkar hosted fundraising events in 2018 and 2022 to which consultancy Edelman donated €1,400 and €1,250. These donations to Varadkar bought Edelman seven tickets to the €200-a-head 2018 event and a five-person table at the €250-per-person 2022 edition.

Both these donations surpassed the legal limit set out in the Electoral Act 1997 of €1,000 per donor per calendar year. Donations that exceed this limit are to be returned. Any donations over €600 must be declared to SIPO.

Failure to declare political donations is a criminal offence punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment under electoral law.

Varadkar didn’t return or declare either donation. In 2019 he claimed to SIPO that Edelman didn’t actually make the first donation.

After the ethics commission questioned Varadkar’s submission for that year, the taoiseach told SIPO that the individual attendees who used Edelman’s tickets had in fact reimbursed the company. This would mean the payment wasn’t one over-the-limit donation of €1,400, but rather seven under-the-limit donations of €200. It also meant that Varadkar didn’t have to publicly acknowledge the donations, as only €600-plus payments are legally required to be published.

It is understood from a source close to the probe that SIPO accepted this explanation at the time, however the commission has now resumed its enquiries during a separate probe into Varadkar’s donations.

SIPO wrote to Varadkar in early May this year to query his 2022 submission to the commission. Having not received a reply, SIPO again wrote to Varadkar this week.

"We have received correspondence from a company, Edelman, concerning donations to you," reads the email. The company, according to SIPO, disagrees with Varadkar.

Edelman got in contact to tell SIPO that it had not been reimbursed for the seven tickets in 2018, like Varadkar had claimed. Edelman further told SIPO that it hadn’t been reimbursed for tickets to the 2022 Varadkar fundraiser either.

SIPO wrote to Varadkar this week to tell him that Edelman doesn’t accept his telling of events.

"In its recent correspondence to the commission, Edelman has confirmed that it was not reimbursed by the individuals for whom it purchased tickets either in 2018 and 2022," reads the email.

According to Edelman the 2018 and 2022 donations should be considered as two individual sums paid by the company to Varadkar.

The last time Varadkar engaged at length with SIPO’s queries about his donations was in February 2019, when the watchdog first questioned Edelman’s payment to the taoiseach.

SIPO also questioned Varadkar about donations from two other people and one company: attorney-general Rossa Fanning, barrister Ciarán Toland and private healthcare provider Centric Health.

Varadkar, in explaining to SIPO his decision to not declare these three donations, similarly said that these three named donors were reimbursed by third parties.

"We also note that the reply of 11 February, 2019 above referred to reimbursement by individuals to other individual regarding donations made in the names of Ciarán Toland on 7 August 2018, Rossa Fanning on 10 August, 2018, and in one other case a company (Ray Power Centric)," reads this week’s email from SIPO to Varadkar.

After Edelman contradicted Varadkar’s on its two donations – effectively the same explanation as he used with these three donations from Fanning, Toland and Centric – SIPO now wishes to confirm Varadkar’s confidence in his statement.

"Can you confirm that the responses to the queries in that case are correct and complete," reads the mail, which asks Varadkar to respond comprehensively by 30 August.

As part of Varadkar’s public declaration to SIPO in 2019, he was required to answer whether he’d received any donations exceeding €600, as is required by Electoral Act 1997.

He ticked a box to say he hadn’t. His declaration for 2022, which will take in Edelman’s donation of last year, is yet to be published.

A spokesperson for Varadkar said the taoiseach "received correspondence from SIPO querying how some donations were accounted for. Politicians regularly receive such queries in the normal course of engaging with SIPO in relation to their annual returns."

When asked whether Varadkar is satisfied with the veracity of his submissions for the years concerned, the spokesperson didn't answer, but said, "The Taoiseach can confirm that he is not subject of an investigation, or even a preliminary inquiry, by SIPO in relation to political donations."

"In advance of holding political fundraisers, the taoiseach sets out in writing the legal obligations for donors, including that companies must register with SIPO if making a donation of more than €200," said the spokesperson.

Paulie Doyle

Paulie Doyle

Eoghan McNeill

Eoghan McNeill

Roman Shortall

Roman Shortall