FORMER Taoiseach Bertie Ahern last night insisted that the former board of the beleaguered Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) were not part of the 'Drumcondra Mafia'.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Ahern also claimed he had no part in the board members' appointments to the CRC.
He was responding to claims last week that he had "close associations" with senior figures and directors of the embattled disability organisation that is embroiled in the 'top-ups' scandal.
Mr Ahern said the former chairman of the board, James Nugent, was a "great guy". He also described Paul Kiely, the former chief executive who retired with a €200,000 pension lump sum paid for from charitable funds, as "a good friend".
But he insisted he played no part in appointments to the disability charity which is now embroiled in controversy for using charitable funds to pay unauthorised salary top-ups to senior executives.
The board of the CRC stood down on Friday evening after an ultimatum from the Health Service Executive to dissolve the board or face funding cuts. It followed a bruising five-hour appearance before the PAC last week during which Mr Nugent and former chief executive Mr Kiely were questioned about their links to Fianna Fail.
Shane Ross TD also singled out the late Fianna Fail senator Tony Kett, who held a senior position at the CRC, and Des Peelo, a former chairman and associate of Mr Ahern, and Vincent Brady, a former cabinet colleague.
Mr Peelo represented Mr Ahern and the late Charlie Haughey, both former Fianna Fail Taoisigh, at tribunals examining their personal finances, but claims to be a "lifelong member" of Fine Gael. Mr Ross asked: "Is this purely a coincidence or are these people part of a very narrow pool who somehow got picked in that way? Is it totally coincidental?"
In his first public comments about the CRC scandal, Mr Ahern said he had "nothing to do with ever picking anybody on the board of the CRC, never. I didn't even know who the chairman of the board of the CRC was until this controversy arose".
He said his biggest involvement was supporting "a sale of work", attending the clinic for physiotherapy on his knee and using the swimming pool which is open to the public for a fee.
He said Mr Nugent was never a member of his north Dublin inner circle, the so-called Drumcondra Mafia. He said, to the best of his knowledge, he appointed Mr Nugent to Cert, the State hotel training agency, only after Ruairi Quinn had appointed him first.
He said, as far as he knew, he appointed Mr Nugent to the Central Bank. "But he was never part of what is known as the 'Drumcondra Mafia', he was never organisationally involved. But he was a great guy," Mr Ahern said.
"Des (Peelo), as far as I know, has worked for the CRC for years. Tony Kett was a friend of mine. Tony worked with me in the Mater and then he went to the CRC. But there are lots of fellas who worked with me in the Mater who went to all kind of jobs. I had nothing to do with them."
Mr Ahern added: "I mean, if you had to check with all the guys I worked with in the Mater and see all the places they ended up, we were a talented bunch of guys, I tell you, 40 years ago."
He said Mr Kiely used to be involved in his constituency in the Eighties.
"And Paul Kiely is a good friend of mine. But these guys all applied for the jobs. I had nothing to do with them. I never ever had power to appoint. The only thing I ever did was when I went to support sale-of-work days years ago," he said.
When asked the last night he socialised with any of the CRC board members, Mr Ahern said: "That's a good question. Well, Tony Kett is dead years so unfortunately I wouldn't have been able to have a drink with him. I would not say I had a drink with Paul Kiely ... I certainly haven't had a drink with him in this calendar year and this is the end of the year."
He said he has seen Vincent Brady "at matches", but added: "I never discussed anything with Vincent Brady. I didn't even know he was on the CRC and I didn't even know Jim Nugent was chairman.
"All of these fellas, as far as I knew, did this voluntarily. They worked on a voluntary board. And I don't think in all the years I was Taoiseach, I don't think I ever went to CRC for an official engagement," he said.
Mr Ahern said the only times he visited the CRC was to use the swimming pool or for treatment for an injury. He was using the services of an orthopaedic consultant and a physiotherapist who were based at the CRC and paid them for their services.
"I banjaxed my leg a few years ago and one of the places I went to for treatment was the CRC. I was in the Mater and I went for some treatment in the CRC. That was it. That was for my leg when I was in crutches last year. But the Mater was the main place I went for it.
"I also received some treatment in the CRC because they have the equipment for it. That was it," he told the Sunday Independent.
He said the salaries and pensions at the CRC was a matter for the Public Accounts Committee. He said that he hoped the situation could be dealt with as a matter of urgency so important charity work could begin again.
As the fallout for charities and voluntary hospitals paying top ups to their executives continues, the Sunday Independent has learnt that the Department of Finance sanctioned inflated pensions for senior executives in charities and voluntary hospitals based on their unauthorised top ups and allowances. The Department signed off on the additional pension payments to three retiring health executives in 2009 and 2010 who argued their pensionable salary should include their unauthorised allowances.
The HSE and the Department of Health are investigating whether other retired charity and hospital executives are getting pensions based on their full topped up salaries.
A spokesperson said that "current policy" was that "top ups" are not pensionable.
However, the former executive of the CRC, Mr Kiely, who retired earlier this year, told the Public Accounts Committee last week his €90,000 pension was calculated on his topped up salary.
The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, John McGuinness, plans to investigate the number of health agency executives who got bigger pensions thanks to their unsanctioned salary top ups, and who knew about them.
The Health Service Executive and the Department of Health will be questioned at the PAC later this week.
Niamh Horan and Maeve Sheehan