Wednesday 25 April 2018

Console chief invented staff to hit HSE for more funding

Console founder Paul Kelly Picture: Conor McCabe
Console founder Paul Kelly Picture: Conor McCabe

Eilish O'Regan and Niall O'Connor

Shamed Console charity chief Paul Kelly inflated his staff numbers and overestimated his annual wages bill by as much as nearly €116,000 in a bid to dupe the HSE into giving him bigger payments.

His elaborate accounting hoax - laid bare in an unpublished audit - led him to provide widely different sets of annual accounts to various agencies.

Accounts provided to the HSE, as part of his application for generous funding for the suicide bereavement charity in 2012, show he claimed to have seven staff and a salary cost of €368,074.

But in the same year his accounts submitted to the Companies Registration Office (CRO)said he had just five staff and his outgoings on salaries came to €252,200.

Read more: Disgraced Console charity chief told auditors his wife drove 'old jeep' – but it turned out to be a €57k Audi car - report

He told the HSE his administration costs that year were as low as €45,633 - giving the clear impression that as much funding as possible was devoted to frontline services.

But the CRO document reveals they were more than three times higher, at €161,487.

The pattern of false accounting was repeated in other years, according to the unpublished HSE audit carried out last year into Console's finances.

The extent of his deceit comes as health officials and interim chief executive David Hall drew up plans to shut down Console and transfer its helpline and counselling services to other organisations, with the majority of the work to be provided by Pieta House.

Some 300 people who were receiving bereavement counselling after losing a loved one to suicide will be offered the alternative service. However 12 staff will lose their jobs.

The UK Charity Commission also announced it has launched a statutory investigation into Console and has frozen around £43,000 in a bank account linked to the London counselling centre.

"The nature of the concerns reported include, but is not limited to, allegations of falsifying of accounts to obtain funding, significant private benefit, conflicts of interest, and financial mismanagement," it said.

Read more: Closure of charity will cost 12 jobs and leave a raft of debt

The HSE audit shows flagrant personal spending by Mr Kelly as the HSE handed over €855,227 in just one year.

Generous public donations and fundraising topped up his charity's income to €5m between 2012 and 2014.

The HSE auditors also discovered that well-meaning members of the public who donated money to Console would be sent a thank you letter - but no copies were held at Console's head office in Kildare.

"Accordingly, there were no records on donations and fundraising receipts made available to internal audit and it was not possible to verify receipts or lodgements of such monies."

Mr Kelly told the auditors his wife drove an "old jeep" - but it turned out to be a €57,149 Audi car.

Read more: 'To be taking advantage of the generosity of people who fundraise on cold, dark nights is just so wrong'

And the damning report revealed how the investigators were confronted with "hindrance and a lack of candour" when they tried to delve into where funding was being spent.

From the beginning, the auditors were subject to various attempts to hinder the work and keep the team away from Console's headquarters.

They were even directed to a premises where records were supposed to be held - only to discover it was a centre where counselling was under way.

He submitted documents which purported to be several years old - but they were compiled on the day they were sent to the auditors.

He described his wife as "just a volunteer" when she was a director, company secretary, chairman of the company and cheque signatory.

Items on Visa Card statements were redacted and there were delays providing missing statements.

Vast sums of charity funding went on salaries, travel and cars.

Between 2012 and 2014, Paul Kelly and his wife made an average of €535 in cash withdrawals from credit cards a week.

Read more: Why there is no option but to close the doors at Console

The investigators also discovered:

- €600 was spent from petty cash to pay for a Christmas meal. This was not an appropriate use of public funding;

- Clothing stores where Console credit cards were used included the trendy Abercrombie and Fitch and Selfridges in London;

- Paul Kelly commissioned an external review of his organisation and got a clean bill of health - excluding the HSE from participating;

- He only signed service level agreements with the HSE - the legal document agreeing to provide a range of services in return for funding - in the second half of the year on two occasions.

In response to the draft audit findings, Mr Kelly told the HSE that he took issue with "any suggestion that there is any deliberate wrongful actions within the organisation or that there is impropriety among management".

He accepted that there were instances where accounts, records and filings were not maintained or reported but he said "this was as a result of error and lack of focus rather than for any other reason."

He said Console had relied overly on some "external advisers" and in particular the accountants and bookkeepers and he insisted the board did not sufficiently analyse their work.

Read more: 'It's sickening,' says charity worker who gave £26k to Console

But his explanations were not accepted by the auditors.

The audit was shown to the HSE's National Office for Suicide Prevention, which funded Console.

It responded in March last, saying it was "seriously concerned" and it sent the document to the National Director of Mental Health Services.

The HSE has continued to give funding of around €70,000 a month to Console this year.

It was not until the 'RTE Investigates' programme two weeks ago, revealing the full scale of financial abuse, that the public became aware of the scandal.

The audit, which has a range of recommendations for Console, was given to HSE Director General Tony O'Brien in April.

Irish Independent

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