Saturday 24 March 2018

HSE failed to quiz its employee seconded to Console about funds

Dr Geraldine Smith, assistant national director of HSE’s Internal Audit and author of the Report. Pic Tom Burke
Dr Geraldine Smith, assistant national director of HSE’s Internal Audit and author of the Report. Pic Tom Burke
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

A senior health official was seconded to work as chief executive of Console for a year - but was never quizzed by HSE investigators who probed how the charity spent its funds.

The experienced official spent a year at the troubled charity in 2008 and then returned to his post in the HSE.

But HSE director general Tony O'Brien yesterday admitted the official was never questioned during last year's audit of Console, which finally uncovered how the charity's founder, Paul Kelly, plundered charity funds for his own personal spending.

Mr O'Brien was speaking as health executives were grilled for more than five hours before the Public Accounts Committee over the HSE's failure to halt the activities of Mr Kelly, despite various warning signals being sounded as far back as 2006.

Fianna Fáil TD Mark McSharry asked if they ever interviewed the HSE official who spent a year at Console about its governance and other issues.

"Would it not have been useful to do that when you were having a very uncooperative audit process?" he asked.

That person would have the "inside track" and a level of insight that would supersede the efforts of the best "audit team on the planet", he insisted.

Read more: HSE only started to become concerned about Console after it increased its funding in 2013 - HSE chief

Read more: 'Why did everyone sit on their backsides after Prime Time?' - Former interim CEO of Console David Hall criticises reaction to charity controversy

Mr O'Brien was also asked why the HSE did not step in sooner when the audit, which began in June last year and was headed by Dr Geraldine Smith, started to gradually reveal the extent of the crisis.

But Mr O'Brien said there was no point in him taking a "cover your a***" approach because it risked jeopardising the exercise and could have led to legal action.

He said the questions raised in 2006 were about counselling supervision at Console and did not refer to the broad issues of the misuse of funds.

However, in 2009, an official in the National Office for Suicide Prevention wrote a strongly-worded memo saying audited Console accounts were not being signed off by the board chairman and some accounts did "not add up correctly".

The committee was told that Console was getting funding of €250,000 at the time. Paul Kelly was brought in and a formal process was agreed "to the satisfaction" of the HSE.

Department of Health officials were also asked how they followed up a warning in 2011 that Paul Kelly posed as a doctor for three weeks in the 1980s. The committee was told the hospital in question had closed and Mr Kelly was asked to explain the incident by a principal officer, describing it as a "student prank".

Mr O'Brien said the HSE only became seriously concerned about the charity when it got increased funding in 2013 and was put under more scrutiny.

Mr Kelly was refusing to attend meetings about funding of its helpline and answer queries on its annual accounts.

"Funding to Console remained relatively static between 2006 and 2013 when it increased from €252,000 in 2012 to €599,000 in 2013," Mr O'Brien said.

"HSE funding increased at this time to prevent the collapse of a National Suicide Helpline previously funded by another organisation."

Console failed to respond to requests for information, deliver on commitments to commission independent reviews of its service, and failed to attend several meetings. This triggered the audit.

Console was placed in liquidation this week, with debts of nearly €300,000. Services are now being provided by Pieta House.

Irish Independent

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