THE only sound to be heard in the committee room was the clack of collective jaws hitting the floor.
It was nearing the end of a marathon and often fractious, five-hour-plus sparring contest between the members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and a trio from the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) plus three HSE staff -- and everyone was looking a wee bit frayed around the edges.
In the firing-line were CRC chairman and current interim chief executive Jim Nugent, director David Martin and former chief executive Paul Kiely.
Missing In Action was the most recent CEO, Brian Conlan, who resigned last Friday and subsequently passed up the opportunity to attend the PAC sitting to discuss the top-up controversy which has rocked the organisation in recent weeks.
There had been a sour atmosphere in the room from the 10am start -- the TDs did little to hide their displeasure over the absence of the CRC's just-departed boss as they wearily set off on yet another dispiriting trudge through the muddy business of top-up payments to executives.
The politicians were in no mood to be charitable to the chaps from the CRC after it was discovered that money from the charitable funds had been used to top up salaries in the disability organisation.
Resign, suggested Kieran O'Donnell.
Resign, advised Shane Ross.
Resign, proposed Jed Nash.
Resign, resign, resign.
It was a bruising encounter and right from the off, the pugnacious Shane Ross landed a flurry of blows on the men opposite him who were unable to fend off the series of right hooks.
The Independent TD harried the CRC executives for answers, and managed to extract a few stark admissions. He quizzed Jim Nugent over how much the organisation had paid Brian Conlan €125,000 -- an amount considerably over the salary of €83,252 as fixed by the HSE -- and also where the extra dosh had come from.
"So you did pay him above the HSE limit?" he demanded. "It went through payroll," replied Jim.
"So you did -- in other words you gave him above it, even though you'd had all those warnings, is that right?" he persisted.
"Yes," responded the CRC chairman.
"So you gave Mr Conlan a top-up out of the Friends and Supporters Club?" he asked, referring to the fund-raising part of the organisation.
"Yes," repeated Jim.
And it turned out that former CEO Paul Kiely's pension will be calculated on his higher salary which included a top-up. Furthermore, he gets €200,000 in a tax-free pension lump sum.
"A staggering figure," declared a clearly staggered Shane. Fine Gael's John Deasy pursued this matter further, and wanted to know where the €200,000 came from. Jim Nugent explained that this large stack of spondulicks also came from the Friends and Supporters club.
Paul Kiely was at pains to point out that he will not be getting his pension for three more years. "Do you have qualms about that lump sum coming from that [charitable] fund?" he was asked by Fine Gael's Eoghan Murphy.
Paul hesitated, and chose his words carefully. "Have I qualms? I have qualms about everything to do with this," he admitted.
It all seemed to be winding down after over five hours of close combat, when Paul Kiely dropped a bombshell right in front of the startled TDs, almost casually mentioning that the CRC pays the Mater Hospital around €660,000 to administer a pension fund that doesn't exist.
Jaws hit the floor. Heads were scratched. €660,000. A year. On a phantom fund. What the hell is that about?
John McGuinness decided it was a good time to wrap proceedings up until next week.
The bombshell was left ticking on the floor. €660,000. If that explodes, God only knows what the fallout will be.