Wednesday 21 March 2018

Contradictions at every turn as PAC boss disputes account of former Rehab CEO Kerins

Committee robustly disputes bullying claims, writes Shane Phelan

Angela Kerins claimed that PAC members were biased against her and engaged in a ‘witch hunt’ and a ‘vendetta’ Photo: Mark Condren
Angela Kerins claimed that PAC members were biased against her and engaged in a ‘witch hunt’ and a ‘vendetta’ Photo: Mark Condren
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Claims by Angela Kerins that "bullying" and "harassment" by TDs forced her to attempt suicide have been met head-on by the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The bombshell, which the former Rehab Group chief executive dropped on the first day of her High Court action for damages against the PAC, was responded to within minutes of the committee beginning its defence of the case.

Opening the defence on Thursday, Paul Gallagher SC said that, while the PAC was conscious of, and sympathetic to, the serious difficulties she had experienced, it did not accept any responsibility for them.

The committee's position in this regard was significantly expanded upon in an affidavit filed to the court by its former chairman, John McGuinness.

Mr McGuinness was chairman when Ms Kerins and colleagues from Rehab attended a bruising committee hearing on February 27, 2014.

The meeting took place at the height of public concerns over how State funding was being used by charities.

Ms Kerins has claimed that PAC members were biased against her and engaged in "a witch hunt" and "a vendetta" against her that day.

She says she and colleagues were pursued for private salary and pension details, as well as being asked questions about the commercial dealings of Rehab, which she believed were clearly outside the PAC's remit.

In an affidavit, she said the treatment of her by the PAC and subsequent media coverage contributed to a collapse in her health, culminating in a suicide attempt on March 14, 2014.

Read more: PAC chairman 'admitted it exceeded remit in Kerins quiz'

However, in his affidavit to the court, Mr McGuinness has a decidedly different take on things. Not only does he deny that the PAC was the cause of her collapse, he questioned whether Ms Kerins had been struggling with stress or ill-health prior to the committee hearing.

"I say that it is highly unlikely that the PAC appearance was the cause of the applicant's ill-health and there must have been a prior underlying cause," he said.

Mr McGuinness suggested that media coverage about her €240,000 salary prior to the hearing may have been a factor, but did not find it plausible that someone of her position and experience could become ill due to an appearance at the PAC.

He acknowledged that there were robust exchanges, but this was nothing out of the ordinary. He said that "in general", there tended to be "a natural edge" to interactions between bodies and the PAC.

The nature of the PAC's work as a spending watchdog "lends itself to intense exchanges", he said.

Mr McGuinness said he spoke to Ms Kerins immediately after the hearing "and she informed me that she was satisfied with the meeting and was anxious to give further information requested by members as soon as possible".

He said Ms Kerins had "confirmed that she had been happy with her decision to accept the invitation to attend the PAC".

This is just one of several instances where the Fianna Fáil TD's recollection of events differs greatly from those of Ms Kerins.

Indeed, there are few elements of Ms Kerins's story he does not seek to contradict.

Probably the most crucial to this case is Ms Kerins's contention that she received an assurance from the PAC that questioning would only relate to HSE and Solas-funded services provided by Rehab, as well as the Charitable Lotteries Fund, which was administered by the Department of Justice.

However, Mr McGuinness insisted that Ms Kerins had been put "on full notice" in a letter on January 22, 2014 that the examination would extend not just to funding of Rehab, but also to the group's expenditure.

He said he attended a meeting with Ms Kerins and a public relations advisor on January 24 at which it was "apparent" she "was already preparing for her appearance before the PAC".

Ms Kerins has claimed that at this meeting, Mr McGuinness "reassured her that the PAC properly understood the limitations on any examination it might wish to conduct into the affairs of a private company".

But Mr McGuinness said in his affidavit that he provided no such assurance and that he particularly mentioned the PAC's interest in determining how Rehab funded salaries.

Ms Kerins claims that, at the meeting, Mr McGuinness said some members of the committee did not like her.

But he states he had no memory of saying this.

Read more: Three high-profile TDs set out to damage Angela Kerins’ reputation, court heard

Another allegation made by Ms Kerins was that Mr McGuinness, in early 2013, had approached her about a staff member who was about to lose his job at the Rehab centre in Kilkenny.

He was told by Ms Kerins that nothing could be done to save the man's job.

Mr McGuinness accepted that the man was a friend of his, but said that as a public representative, he was concerned about the loss of jobs. "I fully accepted Rehab's position and I can confirm that there was absolutely no bad feeling between Rehab, Ms Kerins and me as a result of this issue. I treated the matter as simply a constituency matter," he said.

Ms Kerins claimed that at a subsequent Cáirde Fáil dinner in October 2013, there was "bad feeling" between her and Mr McGuinness. But he rejected this.

"I remember our interaction as perfectly pleasant," he said.

In the affidavit, he went on to refute claims by Ms Kerins that committee members "were motivated by political and public relations objectives and a personal vendetta" against her.

"The PAC was at all times motivated in the public interest," he said.

He also rejected her claims that it had pursued her "in a hostile manner" or engaged in "a witch hunt".

In fact, Mr McGuinness highlighted how committee members Sean Fleming and Áine Collins had complimented Rehab on the work it was doing.

Counsel for the PAC, Paul Gallagher SC, has argued that even if distasteful remarks were made, the right to absolute parliamentary privilege trumped any right the courts may have to intervene. The case, which has been ongoing for six days, is set to resume before a three-judge court in October.

Irish Independent

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