Sunday 28 August 2016

Remedial action from the PAC is looming

The former board members have to tell their side of the story to the Dail's watchdog

Shane Ross

Published 22/06/2014 | 02:30

Central Remedial Clinic, Clontarf. Dublin. Photo: Tony Gavin
Central Remedial Clinic, Clontarf. Dublin. Photo: Tony Gavin

Rumours were rumbling around Leinster House late on Friday: the old board of the CRC is about to give the two fingers to the Dail's Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The departed directors know that they will be invited before the PAC this week.

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Let us presume that the former governors/directors are not following the road of Rehab's Angela Kerins and Frank Flannery. If they refuse to appear, another confrontation is looming.

PAC chairman John McGuinness is rightly in no mood for further provocative claims that we in the PAC have exceeded our remit. It may be an arguable legal point but it defies our duty to monitor the use of public money. Indeed, some of the former governors have already appeared at the PAC.

Did Angela Kerin's antics change their minds about a second coming ?

It is important that Hamilton Goulding appears. It is in his interests to do so. Last December, when his colleagues gave evidence, they may not have covered themselves with glory, as revelation after revelation mixed with stonewalling answers, but this time a judgmental report on their activities has been publicly issued. Their ripostes are essential, especially as administrator John Cregan's report made some pretty damning remarks about their time in charge. Mr Goulding has already issued a statement claiming that the Cregan report "vindicates himself as chair and the board generally of serious allegations of wrongdoing".

He is right that there is no suggestion of anything approaching criminal wrongdoing. Yet it is deeply critical of governance, compliance, procedures, board judgement and the rest. It throws the kitchen sink at them. The former board has a right to put its side of the story, especially as one of the most peculiar aspects of Cregan's approach was his failure to speak to any of them, the very people under whose stewardship all the controversies occurred. According to him, there was "no engagement with former governors of the CRC or the directors of the Friends and Supporters of the CRC per se". It is understood that he may have been in touch with one of them as a "member" of the clinic, but not in his capacity as a director.

This failure to engage with the principal players is inexplicable. Perhaps he thought it would be a waste of time after the woeful performance of members of the old board at the PAC in December? But surely Cregan needed an explanation from them about the mysterious case of the missing files? In his report he pointed out, somewhat casually, that the "HR files relating to two former chief executives, normally held in the Office of the Chief Executive could not be located". Surely the two former chief executives – both board members – could have helped him with this gaping irregularity? He merely described it as a " a matter of concern". It is more than that. It is potential dynamite.

In another unexplained shock did Cregan not want to know why "significant amounts of money" had been transferred from one CRC company to another lacking "formality and recording". What was going on?

Cregan may not have felt he needed fuller explanations. As members of the PAC, we do. So does the public. We would also like to know why CRC never published an annual report.

He finds that the HSE, the main funder of the clinic, was kept in the dark about key CRC operations, about the exorbitant pay deals given to Kiely, about the recruitment of Kiely's successor, about the lack of narrative about "Big ticket" items and above all about the mysterious activities of the 'Friends and Supporters' of the CRC.

He is crystal clear that the €12.8m Friends and Supporters' Fund was unknown to the HSE but was exploited and created to maximise the amount of money that the CRC could extract from the HSE. He concluded that the HSE would not have needed to pay as much to the CRC if they had known of the hidden funds.

He does not ask the awkward question why the HSE did not know of them. If it was a secret fund, it was not well buried. I dug it up in the Companies Office when investigating the CRC. Surely the vast resources of the HSE, alerted to the exhorbitant pay awarded to Paul Kiely, would have sought the source of such largesse? Indeed, as Goulding pointed out in a statement during the week, the details were published in annual accounts and formed the basis for jointly-funded projects with the HSE.

The PAC is poised to resolve these questions about the treatment of public money.

If Cregan has explanations to give about his approach to the recent controversies he has done a good job in setting up a new board with a mixture of skills. A chief executive, Stephanie Manahan has been recruited from Connolly Hospital. She was selected in an open public process and will be paid within the guidelines. The morale of the wonderful clinic staff is improving after a period of demoralisation. The future of the operations are not in danger. Cregan has begun to restore public confidence in the CRC.

Yet the past cannot be brushed under the carpet. Five miles away from the clinic in Clontarf, in Leinster House, a murkier game is being played. Accountability for public money is being sidelined. Attempts are being made to frustrate probes into what has happened.

Doubts are growing about the powers of the PAC, which has been met with attempts to delay its investigations and pleadings of legal technicalities to avoid appearing before it. Anyone wishing to employ lawyers to bog down Oireachtas committees in technicalities will provoke a reaction from the PAC – a reaction that demands transparency and even extends the remit of the PAC beyond legal doubt.

It is up to the Government. They control the ruling body, the secretive committee on Procedure and Privileges. If they want to indulge the game of legal technicalities, then they can do so.

If they want to put an end to these endless shenanigans, then they can give the all-clear to Oireachtas committees' rights to compel witnesses to account for public money. The signs are not good.

Shane Ross is an Independent TD for Dublin South

Sunday Independent

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