Sunday 21 July 2019

Fraudster working at Catholic counselling service stole €28,000

Weakness: Auditors found problems with the counselling service’s financial controls. Stock picture
Weakness: Auditors found problems with the counselling service’s financial controls. Stock picture
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Over €28,000 was misappropriated by a member of staff at Accord, the Catholic marriage and relationship counselling service, while another employee was given a personal loan of €5,000 with no evidence it was approved by the board.

A series of HSE audit reports has revealed poor financial controls in a range of agencies that receive State funding to provide essential services.

Among those criticised is Accord, which received €668,700 State funding from Tusla in 2016, and has its base in Columba Centre, Maynooth, Co Kildare.

The auditors found that €28,591 was misappropriated by a member of staff who received voluntary cash donations from clients. The employee's role included accounting for cash and cash lodgements.

Accord central office voluntarily disclosed the incident to Tusla in 2017 and the member of staff admitted the wrongdoing in February that year, resigning shortly afterwards. The treasurer also resigned.

The incident had come to light when an internal Accord audit uncovered irregularities, prompting a full investigation as well as reports to gardaí and the Charities Regulator.

This led to new guidelines and receipts systems being installed and at the time the HSE did its audit of the agency in November last year a Garda investigation was ongoing.

The HSE auditor's report said Accord should benchmark its controls against industry standards and do a full review every year.

The HSE audit also found a member of staff had been given a personal loan of €5,000 in 2016 from the counselling centre.

The auditors received no evidence that it was presented to and approved by the board.

The employee involved was due to repay the loan by way of a cheque instead of deductions from payroll.

"This arrangement increases the possibility of a loan default," the report said.

The employee agreed to repay the loan in 2016 but records show the cash was not received until February 2017. No interest was applied at the time of audit.

HSE auditors also found purchases of flowers, gift vouchers, cakes, wine, a wedding card and a photo album.

They were informed by Accord that these were paid for from "unrestricted" funds which is the correct procedure. But the agency could not provide supporting documentation to show evidence of this.

The auditors also found that oversight procedures by central office on counselling centres in receipt of less than €12,000 in funding a year were "largely unstructured and relaxed". In most cases they involved a "sporadic visit" or queries from central office.

However, the auditors said that at a minimum all counselling centres should be guaranteed a visit once every two years.

They concluded that there were "weaknesses" in the Accord central office counselling centre's design and operation of financial controls which could result in financial loss. The report said Accord now has a newly established structure to ensure all its centres comply with adopted financial policies and procedures and internal controls.

A spokeswoman for Accord said yesterday that a review of the organisation's financial procedures was undertaken arising from the audit. As a consequence, revised guidance was issued to centres, resulting in the implementation of additional standards.

The board of Accord "is satisfied that this enhanced oversight has strengthened the effectiveness of the organisation's financial controls".

Separately, a documented loan of €5,000 was made to a staff member in September 2016. The principal was repaid in February 2017 and subsequently €335 in interest was paid in accordance with standard Revenue guidelines.

Tusla said it was tracking the implementation of the recommendations in its monitoring of Accord.

Irish Independent

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