By Eugene Bingham

WELLINGTON - A $500,000 public relations budget and a $50,000 expense account for Roger Estall were among details of the financial mess in the Fire Service unravelled yesterday. Figures released showed that the public relations company Morris Communications had cost the Fire Service Commission $493,271 in the seven months from December 1997.

And it was revealed that Mr Estall, the commission chairman, had spent $50,645 on travel, accommodation and hospitality in the year to last June.

The details were tabled at a parliamentary select committee conducting a financial review of the service in light of a damning Audit New Zealand report criticising the commission for a lack of financial controls.

Mr Estall was hauled back before the committee at late notice yesterday to explain more details of the commission's financial state. His answers gave Opposition MPs another chance to call for his resignation, and left Internal Affairs Minister Jack Elder with the job of having to dampen hot-spots once again.

Among the revelations were:

* Morris Communications charged $2375 to accompany Mr Elder and Mr Estall to the scene of a fatal fire in Wainuiomata in April 1998.

* The commission spent $194,000 on legal advice during last year's select committee inquiry into allegations against Mr Estall.

* The commission paid $570 a week for a fully furnished flat in Wellington for the use of out-of-town commission members.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard said some of the spending was scandalous. "This Government is allowing the commission to pay a fortune to consultants."

Alliance MP Grant Gillon described the commission as a "trough and the snouts are in it deeply."

Before the committee, Mr Estall defended the legal expenditure, saying the commission had needed to defend itself against "almost criminal" allegations, which had been unproven.

Later, the head of the PR company, Gerry Morris, said he was "proud" to be helping the commission.

The trip to the fire scene was necessary to "experience the reality and trauma of modern fire," said Mr Morris.

But the president of the Professional Firefighters Union, Mike McEnaney, questioned whether the money could have been better spent.

"How many homes in Wainuiomata could have been fitted with smoke alarms with that money? I'm outraged at this grotesque wastage from senior personnel."