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Sunday 17 December 2017

Charity's credit cards used to buy clothes and groceries

Console's board of directors has been summoned by the Charities Regulator after a series of revelations, writes Maeve Sheehan

Questions to be answered: Paul Kelly, former CEO of the charity Console. Photo: Robbie Reynolds
Questions to be answered: Paul Kelly, former CEO of the charity Console. Photo: Robbie Reynolds
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The former boss of the suicide charity, Console, has been asked to account for expenditure such as supermarket groceries, clothes and flowers by internal auditors for the Health Service Executive, according to sources.

Paul Kelly, who resigned as chief executive of the charity on Thursday, has been questioned by the HSE over a range of purchases billed to the charity's credit cards, and about a trip he and a family member made to New Zealand and Australia to attend conferences, according to informed sources.

The HSE is also questioning whether two cars, a Mercedes and an Audi, acquired by the charity were being properly used for the benefit of the charity.

Concerns about the spending are among the issues raised in an internal audit of Console Suicide Bereavement Counselling Ltd by its biggest State funder, the HSE. The HSE has declined to comment on the audit, but the amounts under scrutiny are thought to be between €250,000 and €500,000, according to informed sources.

The latest scandal to hit the charity sector unfolded on Thursday when an RTE Investigates documentary programme revealed serious governance concerns at the charity. Paul Kelly resigned in advance of the programme. Mr Kelly's wife and sister also resigned their positions on the board.

The Charities Regulator, John Farrelly, has summoned Console's directors to a meeting tomorrow. The Public Accounts Committee is expected to ask the HSE to explain its oversight of the public funds paid to the charity.

Sources said the internal audit was the "biggest" and "most challenging" undertaken by the HSE. Its report runs to 229 pages and comes up with 89 recommendations. A copy of the report was sent to Paul Kelly for his comments, and it is understood that he responded late last week. Gardai are also examining Console's use of funds.

The charity has received more than €12m from the State, public fundraising and donations in a nine-year period to 2014, including €3.4m from the HSE. According to the 2014 accounts, the charity received €817,000 in HSE grants that year and over €1m from fundraising and donations. Mr Kelly received "consultancy fees" of €81,528 in 2014 and €90,066 in 2013.

The accounts also reveal that the charity took out a €507,390 mortgage with Bank of Scotland, secured against a house on the Navan Road in Dublin, that it uses for counselling. The company had net liabilities of just over €109,000 at the end of the year.

Mr Kelly and his wife are directors of a second company, Console Counselling, which was set up in 2014 - but accounts have not been filed yet. They are also directors of a company called Alexandra College of Higher Education, set up in 2011, which has never traded.

Mr Kelly could not be contacted by the Sunday Independent but he denied any wrongdoing to RTE last week.

Console runs a 24-hour suicide prevention helpline and counselling centres across the country. The HSE is reviewing its funding but wants the services it provides to continue.

The alleged breaches of governance revealed by RTE have come as a shock to the charity sector, as Paul Kelly is one of its most high-profile figures. He was the recipient of a People of the Year award in 2014 and has secured the support of various celebrities and politicians, including President Michael D Higgins, who is a patron.

Mr Kelly was a keynote speaker at a conference in Auckland, New Zealand, in September 2012, sharing the stage with academics and clinicians.

Last week's Prime Time programme, however, revealed a "history of deception", including a bizarre attempt by Mr Kelly to pass himself off as a doctor in the casualty ward of the Royal City Hospital on Baggot Street in 1983. He was prosecuted in the District Court but was given the benefit of the Probation Act by the judge.

According to a newspaper report of the case, Kelly - then aged 25 and unemployed - applied to an advertisement for the locum post in a Sunday newspaper. He told the doctor who interviewed him that he was educated at Trinity College, and was asked to turn up for work the following Monday.

He said he was approached for his qualifications after he had started working there but used the registration number and medical defence number of another doctor he knew of the same name. He was rumbled after three weeks.

A porter told the newspaper that Mr Kelly was "very religious and never came up for tea during his break, and stayed away from the other doctors". A spokesman for his family said he had been warned to stay away from hospitals for good.

Kelly went on to found a counselling organisation called Christian Development Services in 1989, and wrongly claimed that Bertie Ahern, the former Taoiseach, was one of its trustees. Ahern, who was then Minister for Labour, had no connection with the organisation.

The RTE programme also revealed how Mr Kelly often signed himself off as Father or Brother Paul Kelly, of the Order of San Damiano, and the Rev Paul Kelly, Servants of the Poor.

Mr Kelly told RTE he was "ordained" in 1988 and was founding a new religious congregation at that time that was to be known as the Order of San Damiano, and then the Servants of the Poor. He said was "entitled" to refer to himself as a Brother and Reverend.

Christian Development Services was dissolved in 1993 and Mr Kelly is believed to have spent some time in Australia before returning to Ireland, where he founded Console in 2002 to provide bereavement counselling for those affected by suicide, following the death of his sister.

Charities must adhere to strict rules laid down by the Revenue Commissioners to avail of tax exemptions, including keeping an independent and unpaid board of directors.

The RTE programme alleged that, at one stage, the board of Console was made up exclusively of family members, until new directors were appointed in 2014.

It alleged that €215,000 was paid to Paul Kelly as a director over three years but, when applying for grants, the accounts sent to State funders were altered to omit these payments. Console also listed as directors people who were not even on the board in some of its applications for State funds. They included Senator Jillian van Turnhout, who said she was "stunned" as she had no connection with Console.

Mr Kelly told RTE the accounts provided to funders were "draft accounts" and denied "any assertion of intentional wrongdoing on the part of Console, the CEO and/or directors". He also said those listed as board members were "potential" directors.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it will conduct an audit of the €130,000 in funding it provided to Console's UK office, where Mr Kelly, his wife and his son, Tim, are listed as directors. The UK Charities Commission is "assessing" the situation.

Kelly is originally from Ballyfermot but his current address is Clane, Co Kildare, according to company accounts. Tommy Morris, a former parliamentary assistant to Fine Gael TDs Gay Mitchell and the TD, Derek Keating, said he has highlighted concerns about Mr Kelly's fundraising over the years.

He said he first met Paul Kelly in a religious youth group in Ballyfermot, and later when he was a 'priest' with San Damiano offering counselling services in Inchicore.

"I met him on Grafton Street in 1991 and he was dressed in an Aer Lingus pilot's uniform," said Morris, who now teaches at Inchicore College of Further Education. "There are many good charities out there feeling the pain... but people should continue to trust charities."

The board of Console appointed a forensic accountant, Tom Murray, and David Hall, businessman and founder of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation, to review the charity's operations.

David Hall said he cannot comment until his review is complete.

Sunday Independent

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