Saturday 1 October 2016

Finally, as Rehab comes out with its hands up, focus can shift to rebuilding for future

Published 11/04/2014 | 02:30

Angela Kerins. Photo: Tom Burke
Angela Kerins. Photo: Tom Burke

It was overshadowed by the Frank and Angela no-show but, in time, yesterday will be seen as a good day for Rehab. After months in the mire, it made the first tentative steps towards rebuilding the shattered reputation of what is still a fine organisation.

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Serious questions remain – more of which later – but the five representatives of the company came into the Public Accounts Committee with their hands up and, in the main, tried to give straight answers to straight questions.

There was none of the evasion or the 'what have we done to deserve this?' wounded tone that so characterised Angela Kerins' performance before the same committee a few weeks ago.

They stopped defending the indefensible and, in the process, came across as decent, honourable men who were willing to face up to failures in their roles at Rehab.

The Rehab board had talked the talk in its Tuesday statement about facing up to mistakes, carrying out root-and-branch reviews of governance and structures and rebuilding reputation. It's very early days but yesterday, to a large degree, they walked the walk as well.

Their hands were tied in some key areas. Kerins, via her lawyer, said any disclosure on her pay and conditions would result in legal action against the organisation. Frank Flannery also made it clear he wouldn't tolerate any disclosure.

But there was still a fair amount of information put into the public domain. Not least the large consultancy fees – €408,000 – paid to Flannery over a seven-year period up to 2013.

Then there was the pointed decision to release the salaries of seven senior managers. 'We believe in transparency, even if Kerins and Flannery don't', was the clear inference.

The five men declined the opportunity to stick the boot into the two former chief executives at the very end of the meeting, preferring to focus on the positives – Kerins in particular – had brought to Rehab. But there can be no doubting the frustration they feel towards them.

But for all the genuine contrition on display from the board members, one can't ignore the serious failures of corporate governance at Rehab.

It was hard to disagree with Shane Ross' assessment of a weak board dominated by one individual. Mary Lou McDonald's "personal fiefdom" description is a moot point. But the picture that came across was an organisation dominated by a forceful chief executive with a well-meaning, but ineffective, board failing to exercise proper oversight.

To be fair, the Rehab representatives didn't try and excuse their failings. They also made it pretty clear that, if it was felt they weren't the people to lead the organisation into its bright new dawn, they wouldn't be hanging around.

It is hard to imagine too many of the board being in place in a year's time, although given their willingness to own up to mistakes, there may be an argument for retaining some of that experience.

Serious questions, however, remain unanswered about Rehab's affairs, not least about Complete Eco Solutions and the failed coffin-making project. The revelation that Kerins disclosed to the board the involvement of her husband and brother in that company two weeks before it was even formed is puzzling. And the emergence of an email on the venture, sent in December 2009 to Kerins, raises doubts about her assessment that she had absented herself from the process.

We also know that there were concerns at board level about the involvement of those close to Kerins in the project. But those concerns don't seem to have been expressed forcefully enough.

Flannery was also a shareholder in Complete Eco Solutions. And he was just one of a number of board members who received consultancy fees, a practice that breached Rehab's own rules.

The other obvious unanswered questions concern the pay and pensions of Kerins and Flannery. It is very possible they will remain unanswered.

It seems clear they will fight such disclosure tooth and nail. And, despite the talk of compelling both to appear before the committee, privately there is little confidence that will happen.

Which brings us to perhaps the most important question of all: what now for Rehab? Its reputation is badly damaged, but the organisation still has great strengths – not least its employees. Employees like the financial controller who, it emerged yesterday, refused to sign a cheque to pay for the coffins because of concerns about the involvement of people connected to the chief executive.

We got a glimpse into the kind of pressure people at Rehab must be feeling from finance director Keith Poole. His voice breaking with emotion, he spoke about his anger and disappointment over what has transpired. It was his "fervent wish" that Rehab would change, he said.

It certainly needs to. The Public Accounts Committee has done a great service in shining a light on its bad practices. But given how crucial Rehab is to the lives and wellbeing of thousands of our citizens, it may now be time to shift the focus from the past to the future.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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