Sunday 25 September 2016

Kelly is not the only culprit - HSE and Government are to blame for Console too

Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30

Former Console chief Paul Kelly is seen here with Ireland’s first lady Sabina Higgins with a tea cosy in the image of the President Michael D Higgins in Mayo in 2015 to help launch the Cosy Up To Console national suicide awareness campaign. Mr Kelly is now at the centre of a growing scandal over allegations concerning his governance of the charity Photo: Keith Heneghan
Former Console chief Paul Kelly is seen here with Ireland’s first lady Sabina Higgins with a tea cosy in the image of the President Michael D Higgins in Mayo in 2015 to help launch the Cosy Up To Console national suicide awareness campaign. Mr Kelly is now at the centre of a growing scandal over allegations concerning his governance of the charity Photo: Keith Heneghan

Mud all over the charity world. Wasn't that sector hosed off and put to rights? If only. And so deja vu unfolds yet again for a public whose trust continues to be not just abused but given the punchbag treatment.

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Between the wind-down of Console, whose serial liar chief executive used its funds as a personal cash machine, and revelations about €2m in payments at St John of God's, the charity world spectacularly fails to cover itself in glory.

And let's not forget the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC), where we learn an accidental overpayment to former chief executive Paul Kiely cannot be recouped from his €741,000 severance package - that's more than 20 years of wages to average earners. Legal advice indicates it would cost too much to pursue the money.

Mr Kiely - who allowed the charity to become mired in scandal on his watch - could return the extra sum voluntarily, of course, but declines to do so. Apparently he believes charity begins at home.

Regrettably the CRC is not the only charity whose senior executives allowed a sense of personal entitlement to overshadow their organisations. And in considering the term charity, let us bear in mind that a number of them receive substantial funding from the State.

It seems peculiar, to say the least, how the HSE continues to rely so heavily on charities to do essential work for the State; yet it neglects to exert control - least of all financial - over such organisations.

Again and again, failures of governance and lack of transparency emerge, contributing to an erosion of the public trust. Weasel devices are used, with charities repeatedly distinguishing between money from the Exchequer and private money drawn from property rental or car park income. St John of God's is the latest offender there. But everything should be made public - everything.

Charities must accept that boards are not window dressing. The need for robust boards was a lesson Ireland learned the hard way from the collapse.

Yet we continue to see boards dominated by family members, and boards whose directors aren't independent or aren't competent to hold senior executives to account. Their functions include asking rigorous and searching questions of executives.

We simply don't know how common family-governed charity boards are.

This has to be established and it has to stop. Organisations in receipt of State funds should be held to high levels of accountability.

And so to Console, a charity which has done first-rate work in the area of suicide counselling. Unfortunately, its interim chief executive has taken a look at the books and concluded that wind-down is the only option.

Chief executive Paul Kelly is the primary culprit for this betrayal of public confidence. But he is not the only one with questions to answer. Both the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Government are on the hook, too.

The Government has questions to answer over its failure to support and empower the Charities Regulatory Authority. Why was the authority not staffed with adequate numbers to enable it to investigate and supervise charities? Last year, a Freedom of Information request from RTÉ News revealed the Regulator warning the Government repeatedly that it had insufficient staff to fulfil its obligations.

And why did the HSE drag its feet over Console? Auditors for the HSE sent in a report where inconsistencies, doubtful items of expenditure and evasions were all too obvious. There were 17 words redacted on credit card statements in a six-month period, such as 'café', 'menswear' and 'pharmacy'. Questions put to Mr Kelly by the auditor about expenditure in supermarkets received evasive and unsubstantiated answers along the lines of 'the dog ate my homework'.

Transparency wasn't just absent, it had packed its bags and left the country.

The auditor's report noted contradictions were "a matter of concern". But the HSE appears to have been slow to react - least of all, by cutting off funding at the first signs of deception.

We know the gardaí were called in. What steps, if any, did they take? It seems to have taken an RTÉ Investigations Unit exposé before a halt was called to Mr Kelly's rummage through the public purse.

Why did it take so long for these issues to reach public attention?

Console was run by one family. Surely the HSE should have scrutinised this as an area for concern before allocating public money. For example, it could have insisted on a strengthened board with independent and suitably qualified representatives, rather than allowing it to be dominated by the Kellys. Instead, the HSE tolerated a situation where both executive and non-executive arms of the organisation were in the hands of the same people.

As for St John of God's, 'consultants made us do it' appears to be its line, when questioned about top-ups to senior executives which flout State salary caps. Although its group chief executive John Pepper was not bound by public sector pay rules.

Over all the repetitive lack of standards, lack of transparency and lack of governance we are subjected to leaves a sour residue in the public mouth. Who is guarding the guardians? Those who volunteer are unhappy, as are those who donate and those who naturally expect their taxes to be distributed with prudence.

It is extremely difficult for charities to recruit board members, not least because directors in this sector are unpaid.

Offering some modest remuneration might attract people who would take their responsibilities more seriously. While their cost would be drawn from the same pot which supplies services, it could be argued that tighter expenditure over total funds would result. Accountancy fees are regarded as money well spent, why not directors' fees?

The charity sector has nothing to fear from scrutiny. On the contrary, its best interests demand as much fresh air as possible should be let in - people will continue to support organisations which demonstrably are well managed.

Remember, we are a charitable people. But we don't like being taken for mugs.

Irish Independent

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