The advertisements were running on radio around a month ago, as the economy was heading down the tubes. Do you want management training? Contact the Irish Management Institute (IMI), where half of your training fees will be covered by Fás.
The IMI is one of the most expensive training outfits in the country. Fees range from €1,300 up to €5,000 and beyond. And Fás was picking up half the bill for private sector companies to brush up on management training. Not just that, but Fás was desperate to spend money, taking out expensive radio ads to boost take-up.
The campaign had the whiff of one designed to spend fast in the financial year in order to ensure budget levels for next year are maintained. This, at a time when the agency should have been putting maximum energy into reskilling the thousands recently left jobless. As a vignette, the management training advertisements show how Fás has lost the run of itself.
In many ways, the trajectory of Fás through the last decade mirrors the changes in Irish society. Those at the top in politics, business and the trade unions saw it as their entitlement to grow accustomed to lapping in luxury, irrespective of who was paying for it. After all, weren't they at the apex of an economy that was being heralded across the globe? Weren't they worth it?
This sense of entitlement wasn't unique to Fás, but the state training agency was a law unto itself because it exemplified partnership, where government, business and union heads got together and agreed to have a rare old time of it in the best interests of the country.
Thus, trade union leader and chairman of Fás Peter McLoone could fly first class across the Atlantic, and condemn fatcats from the rooftops on his return.
At a conference on 16 April, McLoone criticised business leaders and politicians for double standards on pay. He said they were out of touch with reality.
"These people [employers] and their organisations want lower wages and fewer protections against exploitation," he said.
His predecessor, Brian Geoghegan, a director of Ibec, could hit out at public spending yet be at the head of a board responsible for an executive dropping a $2,000 dinner bill in Florida.
In a pre-budget submission in November 2002, Geoghegan lamented "runaway public spending" and commended the government for attempting to reel it in.
Geoghegan was chairman of Fás for five of the years between 1999 and 2007 when the agency's budget ballooned from €596 to €1bn right through a time of effective zero unemployment. At a time when Fás could realistically have been expected to contract or disappear, it took on the process of empire building.
Through the years that straddled Geoghegan and McLoone's chairing, the board spent €175,114 on 15 meetings in salubrious locations such as the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, the Radisson in Sligo and three times in Hayfield Manor in Cork. The bill for food and drink alone came to €97,934.
And Mary Harney, as political head of Fás in 2004, could strive to put a dent in the agency's budget by cutting Community Employment schemes, before heading off to Cocoa Beach and billing her hair-do at Solutions Nail Bar to the agency.
There was enough milking to go around for everybody. Five ministers found it necessary in the national interest to pop into Florida to check out our space cadets on a Nasa project. Would their attendance on site have been as vital if the project was located in Kentish Town, or Termonfeckin?
Through it all, the board knew nothing of the waste, or if they did, turned away from it and got on with enjoying their cut. The cosy set-up ensured there would be no questions from any other quarters. Until recently, examination of the gravy train was off-limits for any conscientious politicians who might be out there. There were no awkward questions about Fás in the Dail. Fás has a base in most towns and cities around the state. The good work done at that level ensured no politician would rock the boat. Any attempt to stain the organisation would be taken personally at a local level, and the politician left in no doubt about his cavalier approach to votes.
The chasm between those at the top and the work on the ground is best illustrated by events in 2004. This was when the brass were shooting over and back to Florida, pursuing the national interest with a demented fervour.
On one of the trips that year, Harney and two executives brought their spouses along for the ride. This was the same trip on which Mary summoned Solutions Saloon from Cocoa Beach to the hotel to sort out her hair on Fás's account.
For that trip, the government jet was called into action, at an estimated cost of €80,000. First-class airline tickets, which had been reserved for the travelling party, were then discarded at a cost of €32,000. Or at least that appeared to be the case until somebody turned up a credit note from the airline last Thursday. What's a missing 30 grand when you've got a billion to throw around?
Back home in 2004, there was consternation among Fás employees on the ground. Harney, the relevant minister, was making a serious attempt to cut back on Community Employment and Job Initiative Schemes (JIS). She wanted CE scheme numbers cut from 21,000 to 15,000 in order to boost the labour market.
Most of the proposed cuts were in the social economy, involving recruits who were working on community schemes, with groups with disabilities, and on programmes in disadvantaged areas, designed to improve the quality of life. These positions were contributing little to the economy, but much to society.
Ibec was pushing the agenda of cuts. Harney's husband Brian Geoghegan was chairman of Fás and a director of Ibec. The unions, particularly at the outset, remained silent. Those at the top obviously felt it was time many on CE schemes got a taste of the real world.
Meanwhile, over in Florida, the crack was only mighty. Three-ball golf games for director general Rody Molloy costing $942, dinner at the Mango Tree restaurant for another exec coming in at $2,344, not to mention the call-out service of Solutions Nail Bar at a cost of $410. Somebody wasn't living in the real world alright.
The CE and JIS cutbacks were only reversed on the back of a disastrous local election for the government. Today, armed with the details of the profligacy, we can see exactly the attitude of those who oversaw the empire building at Fás. They considered themselves worth it, and, while nobody likes wielding the axe to the weakest, well, sometimes it's necessary.
Molloy is gone, while the board appears to have abrogated all responsibility. The turmoil in which the agency finds itself comes at a time when Fás should be showing its best side in retraining the growing lines of the unemployed.
Beyond Fás, the current obsession with public service reform ensures the scandal will be used as a big stick. But this wasn't about the public service. Whatever faults lie within the service, the level of trough feeding at Fás was most likely unique.
This was about partnership, the sense of entitlement felt by the top people in government, business and the unions, the belief they were entitled to a piece of the action because the economy was doing well. Because they're worth it.