Friday 28 October 2016

Martina Devlin: A tale of two Irelands: of those who give and those who keep taking

Published 18/01/2014 | 02:30

Brian Conlan, former CEO of CRC
Brian Conlan, former CEO of CRC

Just when you believed the can of worms opened at the Central Remedial Clinic could grow no wormier, the contents start to multiply. And still more revelations wriggle and writhe their way out into the daylight.

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This has been a good week for public accountability and a bad week for the sector where health meets charity, because any scandal involving misuse of public donations impacts on all charities.

But it's been a particularly dismal week for the CRC, valued for its excellent work on behalf of those with disabilities for more than six decades.

That tale of two Irelands with which we have grown wearily familiar is exposed once more: there are those who give, despite austerity -- and those who continue to take, despite austerity.

Yesterday, the airwaves were eloquent with the voices of people living with disability and their advocates, begging a dismayed public not to walk past collection buckets.

Not to let the behaviour of executives who rummaged through them lead to a reduction in donations.

Otherwise, services will be cut further, and those who need them will suffer -- victims both of senior staff's greed, and of general revulsion against that greed.

The current scandal has its genesis in a Health Service Executive audit, which revealed last November that salaries were being inflated for higher-ups at voluntary hospitals and agencies.

Articulating a widespread sense of disbelief, Liam Doran of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said senior management were living "in a parallel universe" if they thought top-up pay was acceptable in an era of frontline cutbacks.

Initially, the melee centred on hospital chiefs. But then the story took a deeply unpleasant twist. The CRC was discovered to have used charitable donations from its fundraising arm, the Friends and Supporters of the CRC, to supplement the salaries of five employees in secret.

Among them were former chief executive Paul Kiely, whose salary of just under €107,000 was more than doubled via a €135,000 top-up. In all, the CRC was supplementing salaries to a combined tune of €280,000 a year for five staff members.

Meanwhile, the public was asked to make sacrifices and be generous towards a worthy cause, little knowing where their contributions would end up. Giving, because people understood that early intervention makes a vital enormous difference in the case of children with disabilities.

The question which has troubled me most since this mercenary business first spilled out is the following: what sort of person takes money they know comes from charitable donations to boost their salaries?

Mr Kiely and board members appeared before the Public Accounts Committee last month. They were slapped round a bit, but not excessively. Mr Kiely's handling, in particular, seemed fairly toned down.

During questioning, he said he received a €200,000 lump sum as a tax-free pension top-up. He did not add that he was given €742,000 in total when he retired, from charitable funds.

The answer was misleading -- and this was before the exasperated committee heard from Mr. Kiely's successor, Mr. Conlon, last Thursday. Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald was particularly impressive in her commonsense approach, and wound up saying she felt he was telling "downright lies".

One of the most astounding aspects of this sorry business is the way the top-up was portrayed to an Oireachtas committee. Elected representatives were bluffed, at the very least.

It is also extraordinary that CRC board members who heard Mr Kiely's account didn't get in touch to put the record straight.

Thanks to the PAC, a light is being shone into some dank, dark places in Irish life.

But the story of that treasure trove payoff has left people hopping mad. Not just because money intended for sick children was siphoned off to keep those already in clover in gold-plated clover.

But because of the ongoing secrecy.

Other hard-to-stomach details made public this week include exotic travel arrangements for senior CRC management to New Delhi, Buenos Aires, Vancouver and various far-flung destinations. How many coffee mornings had to be held, how many Santa bears had to be sold, to underwrite such jaunts?

Just as disturbing is the suspicion that other revelations may yet remain to slither out into the daylight.

Last month, the entire CRC board resigned at the request of the HSE, in an essential scorched-earth policy. Obviously, members' understanding of corporate governance was gravely compromised.

However, the State cannot continue financing organisations over which it has no control. It gives the CRC €19m a year -- never mind the top-ups from the private pockets of taxpayers.

These murky arrangements could never have taken place if legislation to regulate charities had been introduced. It's been parked on the blocks, ready to go, for some time -- but still no sign of it.

It seems self-evident that charities and voluntary organisations in receipt of state funding ought to comply with certain standards. A charity regulator is a must.

It's not as if anyone is naive enough to believe everything is saintly in that world, despite the fantastic work carried out by charities, for the most part. After all, charities have been in trouble before, as far back as the early years of the Irish Sweepstake, set up to finance the fledgling health service -- although it's estimated only one-tenth of the money raised back then ever reached hospitals.

Hopefully, the damage to the charity sector will be short-term and public confidence can be restored -- a priority. Those who rely on the CRC for help with speech and physical therapy and other interventions cannot be left dangling as the injured party here.

The message which needs to reach an understandably jaundiced public is that future donations are probably safer now than at any previous time. As for that clump of worms squirming on hooks -- let's hope our laws are sufficient to deal with them.

Irish Independent

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