A senior RTÉ executive has denied misleading an Oireachtas committee over who knew what about a commercial deal at the heart of the payments crisis engulfing the broadcaster.
Interim deputy director general Adrian Lynch insisted he had been “completely truthful” in his evidence to the Public Accounts Committee when challenged on an email that some committee members claimed directly contradicted RTÉ’s narrative on the contentious agreement involving star presenter Ryan Tubridy and car company Renault.
Former Late Late Show host Tubridy has been off air from his weekday radio show since the payments scandal broke last month and his future at the broadcaster remains in serious doubt.
New RTÉ director general Kevin Bakhurst told the committee on Thursday that the organisation had not yet paid an invoice received from the star this week due to uncertainty over what his salary rate should be, as he is currently between contracts.
An agent for Tubridy told the PAC on Tuesday that an email from former chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe, which was circulated among several other RTÉ executives, makes a clear reference to RTÉ underwriting the Renault deal.
Agent Noel Kelly claimed the email fatally undermines RTÉ’s contention that senior colleagues of former director general Dee Forbes were unaware of her commitment to underwrite the agreement.
Ms Forbes quit last month amid the fall out from the undisclosed payments furore.
Mr Lynch faced robust questions from Sinn Fein TD Imelda Munster about the email on Thursday and specifically on his assertion at a previous committee hearing that members of RTÉ’s executive team had provided guarantees they “knew nothing” about the underwriting agreement.
“I did not mislead this committee,” he replied.
RTÉ has been rocking since admitted it had underdeclared Tubridy’s earnings by 345,000 euro (£295,000) from the years 2017 to 2022.
Of that amount, 225,000 relates to three 75,000 annual payments received by Tubridy for proposed public appearances for Renault, as part of a tripartite agreement involving the sponsor, RTÉ and the presenter.
The most controversial aspect of the deal was RTÉ’s decision to underwrite the payments, which effectively resulted in the publicly funded broadcaster stumping up to cover the costs.
In year one this was done by issuing a 75,000 credit note to Renault in exchange for the motoring company paying Tubridy, and in years two and three, when Renault were no longer involved, by paying Tubridy from its own funds using a UK-based commercial barter account.
Mr Lynch insisted the February 2020 email from Ms O’Keeffe did not contain a legally binding commitment from RTÉ to underwrite the deal.
He said that was done in a verbal commitment by Ms Forbes three months later.
He said when he had previously referred to fellow executives’ lack of knowledge of the underwriting, he was specifically talking about the verbal commitment given by Ms Forbes in May 2020.
“I was completely truthful in everything I said,” he said.
“I was referring specifically to May 7, 2020 which is the verbal agreement between Dee Forbes and Noel Kelly to underwrite it.”
Ms Munster challenged his assertion, saying: “You were giving inaccurate information in relation to who knew and who didn’t know.”
Mr Lynch also apologised to Renault over the fact it had been dragged into the middle of the controversy.
He insisted the agreement between the car company, RTÉ and Tubridy was “central” to negotiations around the star’s wider contract with the broadcaster.
The interim deputy director general also challenged Mr Kelly’s claim that he did not know that Renault had not renewed years two and three of the commercial deal.
Mr Lynch also contested a further claim from Mr Kelly that he had not met Ms Forbes alone without lawyers and finance personnel being present.
Mr Lynch highlighted a Microsoft Teams call on April 25 2022 that only involved Ms Forbes and Mr Kelly.
He said this came in the context of Mr Kelly contacting RTÉ on several occasions earlier that year looking for the two 75,000-euro invoices for years two and three to be paid.
Mr Lynch said Mr Kelly wrote an email to Ms Forbes after their call requesting that then commercial director Geraldine O’Leary send him the “invoicing details”.
“At that point in time in April, who did Mr Kelly think he was sending the invoices to, given the fact that Geraldine O’Leary has clearly said the Renault deal was for one year,” he said.
Mr Lynch also apologised to the committee for not bringing the email to the attention of PAC members earlier.
Mr Bakhurst, who stood down the RTÉ executive board in first day in the job, insisted he retained confidence in his interim deputy director general.
“I have absolute confidence in him, I’ve seen he’s done an incredibly diligent job,” he said.
Mr Bakhurst said RTÉ should not be “brokering or facilitating” commercial arrangements with its contractors going forward, and that the level of fees in these contracts “are too high”.
“I am absolutely determined to implement the change and reform which will help us draw a line under this shameful period in RTÉ’s history and to rebuild trust in public service broadcasting,” he said.
Of the other 120,000 euro of undeclared payments involved in the controversy, these relate to Tubridy’s salary across the years 2017-19.
In extraordinary back-to-back committee appearance on Tuesday, the presenter claimed he was not overpaid by this amount and blamed the misreporting on an accountancy error in how RTÉ had logged a loyalty fee he had waived.
At the PAC committee on Thursday, Mr Bakhurst pledged to change and reform the broadcaster after what he called “one of the most shameful” moments in its history.
He said it was “completely unacceptable” that the public and politicians were misled and the various payments were not properly declared.
The crisis at the broadcaster has widened out from underdeclared pay to Mr Tubridy to RTÉ’s internal financial, accounting and governance practices and its expenditure on corporate hospitality for advertising clients.
The Government has launched two external reviews into RTÉ, has announced a forensic accountant Mazars to look into RTÉ’s accounts, and has paused discussions on a new long-term funding arrangement for the broadcaster.
At a protest held outside RTÉ offices on Wednesday, staff expressed concern that the fallout from the controversy could lead to a drop in commercial revenues from advertising and fewer people paying the obligatory TV licence fee.
Mr Bakhurst said RTE’s commercial partners have so far stuck with the broadcaster.
“The feedback from them is that they think we’re dealing with this and they see the commercial side as business as usual and RTÉ remains a valued customer and brand for them,” he said.
Mr Bakhurst said licence fee figures for June were largely in line with the year before but acknowledged they could take a hit going forward.
“I would expect this to be a little bit bumpy here because I understand the anger out there,” he said.
Chairwoman of the RTÉ Board Siún Ní Raghallaigh, who also appeared before the committee, credited Mr Bakhurst with “steadying the ship of RTÉ by taking swift action on a range of important matters” – including setting up a register of interests for staff and contractors.
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