Boundaries of power at issue in Kerins' case against PAC
Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30
The worlds of politics and law collided in the Four Courts this week as former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins began her case for damages against the Dáil's highest-profile committee.
The proceedings have been no less bruising than the seven-hour "ordeal" Ms Kerins said she endured at the hands of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in February 2014.
So far, only one side of the story has been told, but the impact has been powerful, with Ms Kerins' legal team seeking to paint a damning picture of some of the country's highest-profile politicians.
The proceedings started on Wednesday with the shocking revelation from John Rogers SC that Ms Kerins attempted suicide just days after her mauling at the hands of the committee.
A large quantity of pills and some alcohol was consumed and she fell unconscious in her home.
But for a concerned work colleague, who sought help to break into the house, Ms Kerins would most likely have died.
Ms Kerins is suing the committee, the State and the Attorney General for damages, alleging that she suffered a collapse in her health and lost her job as a result of her treatment by the PAC.
The startling disclosure of the suicide attempt set the tone for two days of submissions from Mr Rogers, a former attorney-general, which sought to portray the activities of the committee in the worst light possible.
An affidavit by Ms Kerins read out in court stated that she felt forced into trying to kill herself due to "bullying, harassment and persecution" led by members of the PAC.
It claimed the committee had engaged in a vendetta against her in pursuit of headlines.
Its members pursued details of private "data protected" information on salaries and other benefits paid by the charity and commercial group.
At the PAC hearing Ms Kerins stood her ground, expressing reluctance to divulge information which she clearly felt fell outside the committee's remit.
She claims to have received assurances that the committee would only inquire into Rehab's State-funded activities and not its commercial ones.
Instead, she was confronted with questions about her own privately funded €240,000 salary, her pension and other entitlements. There was also a considerable amount of probing into consultancy contracts Rehab had with its former chief executive and one-time Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery, as well as the operations of Rehab's commercial enterprises.
Mr Rogers said the committee did not play by its own rules and that its chairman, John McGuinness, had "entrapped" a reluctant Ms Kerins into attending. He claimed committee members clearly knew they were acting "ultra vires", meaning they were operating beyond their power and authority.
To emphasise the point, Mr Rogers conducted what he described as "a forensic appraisal" of the transcripts of two PAC meetings. He went through the lines of questioning used by several TDs, including Fianna Fáil TD McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin and Independent Shane Ross.
It was claimed that questions and comments made by various committee members were "illegal", "judgmental" and "an abuse of power".
These allegations will be hotly contested next week when the court hears from counsel for the PAC, another former attorney-general, Paul Gallagher SC.
Aside from the issue of whether or not Ms Kerins was unfairly treated, the three judges will have to grapple with key questions of just how entitled Oireachtas committees are to pursue certain types of information.
The advice the committee received from its own in-house legal team in 2014 was that an examination of the internal accounts of Rehab was "ultra vires".
This advice stated that the Standing Orders of the Dáil confined the committee to inquiring into bodies audited by the Comptroller & Auditor General, which Rehab was not.
But the committee resolved to examine Rehab anyway.
This has left Mr Gallagher with the unenviable task of having to argue against the legal advice the committee received.
In seeking to defend the claim, he is set to argue that the PAC was entitled to question Ms Kerins in circumstances where 81pc of Rehab's income in Ireland was provided by the State.
The hearing resumes next Tuesday and the PAC side will be hoping for a better outcome than the last time worlds of Oireachtas committees and the law collided in such as fashion.
The Abbeylara judgment in 2001 found that Oireachtas inquiries did not have the power to make findings of fact or expressions of opinion adverse as to the reputation of citizens.
A decade later, a referendum to give Oireachtas inquiries full investigative powers was also defeated - leaving the committees with their wings clipped.