Monday 22 December 2014

Grace us with your presence again, Marie Antoinette – but this time, tell the full story

Published 03/04/2014 | 02:30

Rehab boss Angela Kerins
Rehab boss Angela Kerins

It took long enough. But Angela Kerins – the Marie Antoinette of the charitocracy sector – has finally shown some leadership by stepping down as Rehab's chief executive.

She didn't even have to lose her head; all that needed sacrificing was her stubbornness. When she stopped being blind to the way her behaviour was sabotaging the organisation she was paid handsomely to run, it was a job well done.

Her departure is the best possible news for those employed at the coalface in Rehab, many of them on moderate or low wages.

They are just as dismayed as the public by revelations indicating that a number of the group's senior executives have been living inside a bubble. One which has popped at last.

Ms Kerins did make a contribution during her years at Rehab – she was effective at winning new contracts in other territories, for example – but in the end she became a liability.

Her retirement presents an opportunity for a new chief executive to focus on restoring Rehab's reputation.

This must be a priority because Rehab does worthy work providing education, training and employment for people with disabilities.

The group is among Ireland's largest non-profit organisations, and regrettably its position has been hollowed out – not by public exploration of its expenditure and procedures, but by Rehab's response to that scrutiny.

Donations have collapsed, in part because of the behaviour of Ms Kerins and her close associates. They have undercut trust in how the group spends public money and charity funds.

Charitocracy leanings may help a chief executive to empire-build but they do nothing to further the long-term cause of a charity.

What is essential now is to appoint someone who acknowledges the importance of transparency and accountability: concepts against which Ms Kerins struggled.

Someone who doesn't simultaneously convey hauteur and haziness when asked valid questions of public interest, as she did repeatedly before the Public Accounts Committee recently.

Someone who doesn't act as though €240,000 plus perks just about amounts to an acceptable salary – although it's considerably ahead of other charity chiefs' earnings and remains unacceptably close to boom-time levels. Someone who realises that accepting trips in helicopters signals a taste for extravagance, regardless of who is picking up the bill, and recognises that this is not a particularly positive image for a charity leader.

An appointment from outside Rehab is needed, rather than promoting from within (as happened with Ms Kerins).

Unfortunately, members of her team showed disturbing tendencies towards the same regal bluster she indulged in, as they copied her stonewalling stance before the PAC.

The corporate face of Rehab was not a pretty sight there, hiding behind legal argument and PR platitudes. It wasn't particularly convincing PR spin, either.

Anybody tempted to feel sorry for Ms Kerins, in light of her resignation statement referencing the toll on her family from recent publicity, ought to bear one simple fact in mind. Much of the stress has been stoked by her own behaviour.

She could have sidestepped the lion's share of the controversy by disclosing her salary when the issue was first raised.

If she had acknowledged that it was high and offered a voluntary markdown in solidarity with fellow citizens struggling under austerity, her stock would have improved.

However, people living inside bubbles are generally mystified by criticism.

The complaint she made during her opening statement to the PAC is a reminder that there are no windows in a bubble.

"We have wondered what we have done wrong," she marvelled.

So let's canter through some of the highlights. First off, there was Rehab doing business with some of Ms Kerins's relatives; then there was the case of board member Frank Flannery billing the group €66,000 for lobbying services; and of course, who can forget the scratch card that barely broke even in 2012, despite €3.4m in sales.

Remember also its PR adviser Michael Parker, who accepted payment from a developer who claims that he wanted to buy Rehab's headquarters (Rehab says it was never for sale).

There was also Ms Kerins's extremely generous remuneration arrangements – including the odd sight of her pay increasing (if only by €6,000) at a time of cutbacks – and her presiding over an organisation where 12 senior executives earned more than €100,000 a year, with bonuses paid to some staff in 2012.

Then there was the legal letter Rehab sent to the PAC, asking members to confine themselves to inquiries about public money.

A fundamental problem with the outgoing chief executive is her tendency towards dual standards. She liked to have her cake and eat it. As Mary Lou McDonald has pointed out, Ms Kerins had no compunction about playing the public employee card to force pay reductions on staff – all the while exempting herself and other top executives.

She called herself a private citizen when it suited her but headed an organisation soliciting public donations, which was also in receipt of more than €80m a year from the Exchequer.

She deemed it acceptable to ask the public for money and support, but batted away the public – through its representatives – when questions were asked of her, using the group's commercial activities as a shield.

Adopting an imperial position, she has complained repeatedly about invasion of privacy while showing no understanding of 'noblesse oblige'.

Her Marie Antoinette act has damaged not just Rehab but the broader charity sector.

She is gone but not forgotten – not with so many unanswered questions surrounding Rehab, and the public has a right to answers from Ms Kerins about her tenure.

"A very unwilling participant" at the last PAC meeting, as Shane Ross described her yesterday, she may prove even less accommodating on April 10, when she is invited back. But if she cares a jot about Rehab, she will turn up – leaving her high horse outside – and co-operate.

Irish Independent

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