Monday 23 October 2017

PAC entitled to ask about Rehab salaries due to €80m public funding

Angela Kerins Picture: Collins Courts
Angela Kerins Picture: Collins Courts

Tim Healy

The Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was entitled to ask about salaries paid by the Rehab group, including to its former CEO Angela Kerins.

The High Court heard that this was because various group companies receive some €80m annually in public funds.

While Ms Kerins sought to distinguish between payments made by State bodies “to” Rehab and expenditure “by” Rehab, there was no such distinction, Paul Gallagher SC, for PAC, argued.

The Rehab Group charged its various companies for services and its expenditure was therefore open to scrutiny by the Committee.

Ms Kerins was in court Tuesday (Oct 4) for the resumption of her challenge over hearings of the PAC concerning public payments to the charity.

She claims the conduct of two hearings on February 27tand April 10 2014 involved bullying and harassment amounting to an unlawful “witchhunt” against her outside PAC’s jurisdiction. She wants damages on grounds including alleged personal injury, loss of reputation and loss of career.

She was so overwhelmed after the February 27 hearing she attempted to take her life on March 14 and was unable to attend the April 10 hearing, it is claimed.

The three judge court has to first decide if PAC had jurisdiction to conduct the hearings as it did.

Continuing his arguments, Mr Gallagher said the PAC was entitled to examine how sums were spent by publicly funded bodies even if the HSE was satisfied with the services provided.

Rehab is among various non-profit bodies that have service level agreements with the HSE for provision of 80 per cent of disability services costing €1.2bn annually, he said.

The Comptroller & Auditor General in 2009 had questioned the systems for allocating funds to such bodies on the basis of a previous year’s allocation.

These services were not procured by competitive tender and the C&AG had suggested different ways of pricing certain services and had pointed to a system being used by St John of Gods.

The Department of Justice had also phased out funding under the Charitable Lotteries Scheme for the Rehab lottery for reasons including profits on a €4m annual grant for ticket sales amounting to some €10,000.

The PAC was entitled to ask about these and other matters so the Dail had the relevant information to decide if schemes represented value for money, counsel said.  

The courts, he submitted, have no power to evaluate statements by some PAC members for the purpose of detecting alleged “ruthless hostility” towards Ms Kerins to ground her claim for damages. Any complaints she had must be brought to the Dail itself and addressed by its Committee for Procedures and Privileges.

Should Ms Kerins' win this case, the consequences for free speech by members of the Oireachtas were "far-reaching", he said.

This case was principally about parliamentary speech and the scope of Article 15 of the Constitution providing the Houses of the Oireachtas make their own rules and have power to ensure freedom of debate.

PAC was protected from being sued by virtue of the absolute privilege provided by the Constitution to “utterances” by members of the Oireachtas, he said.

There was a significant difference between statements made in the type of proceedings before PAC and the sort of “adjudicative” process the courts found could not be carried out by an Oireachtas tribunal of inquiry into the fatal shooting of John Carthy at Abbeylara, counsel argued.

The court had no power to evaluate individual utterances by PAC members and make them amenable for those so as to found a claim for damage when PAC did not intend to issue any report or to make findings concerning Ms Kerins.

Ms Kerins was also not compelled to attend before PAC and had attended voluntarily after being invited to assist it in understanding the type, volume and outcomes from services funded by State payments, counsel said. 

The hearing is listed to run until Friday.

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