Wednesday 16 October 2019

How this tangled web unravelled for CRC chiefs

PAC members 'gobsmacked' and incredulous as the CRC bombshells continued to drop, writes Lise Hand

Brian Conlon, the former chief of the Central Remedial Clinic arriving for the Dail Public Accounts meeting at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Tom Burke

Lise Hand

JOHN Deasy visibly struggled for a phrase to express how he felt about the extraordinary revelations which he and his fellow members of the Public Accounts Committee were hearing from the two men sitting across the room.

"What we're dealing with is a pretty twisted web. I think we're just clipping the tip of the iceberg," the Fine Gael deputy eventually concluded.

Sometimes the loudest bombshells detonate in the quietest of rooms. There had been absolute hush in Committee Room One earlier while the bespectacled chap from the HSE calmly demolished the wall of silence which had been meticulously constructed around the financial activities of the CRC.

Barry O'Brien, the HSE's national director for human resources, read from a letter which finally laid out the astonishing extent of the top-up payments to the former chief of the CRC Paul Kiely.

Last December, politicians and public alike were aghast to discover that the former boss had received a €200,000 pay-off when he stepped down, and that his salary and those of other executives in the agency had been topped up with money taken from charitable funds.

But now it transpired that this lump sum was indeed the tip of one particular iceberg. For the letter sent to HSE boss Tony O'Brien by John Cregan, the interim administrator appointed to sort out the complex financial affairs of the CRC, revealed a far more stunning reality.

Barry O'Brien enumerated aloud the true extent of Mr Kiely's retirement package, which amounted to a total of €742,000. "The payments to Mr Kiely could not have been made by the CRC if the €700,000 had not been received from the Friends and Supporters," he read.

Some details of this letter had appeared in the media that morning -- nonetheless the shock which rippled through the room was genuine, as opposed to the faux outrage which is all too often deployed by politicians looking to land a blow on the other side.

The shock rapidly turned to anger as the deputies tried to grapple with this twist in the already tangled tale. And all attention was on the man in the hot-seat, Paul Kiely's successor, ex-chief executive Brian Conlan who had resigned from his post in December.

It was the committee's first chance to grill Mr Conlan as he had not attended the previous PAC session in December when the top-up revelations came to light. The former CEO explained that at that time he had been on his honeymoon.

What followed on from the reading of the letter was a low-key but intense battle, as question after question was hurled at Mr Conlan.

But on many occasions, Mr Conlan was unable to help with the deputies' inquiries. He had not been present at the special meeting of the board which was held last March to sign off on Mr Kiely's retirement package, because he had been out of the country.

And no, he hadn't read the minutes of that meeting on his return. Nor was he sure when he had heard that Mr Kiely was stepping down, but he was sure that he hadn't known before it was announced at the special meeting. And this committee was the first time that he had heard the figure of €700,000.

The committee were openly sceptical about how such an experienced executive could have been aware of so little.

"I was new to the job. I was trying to find my feet," explained Mr Conlan.

However the scepticism soon hardened to outright disbelief when the minutes of the meeting on March 25, 2013, were circulated.

Eyebrows shot up all around the room as the deputies exchanged looks of incredulity.

Fine Gael's Simon Harris was close to scornful. "A man blindfolded on a galloping horse would have been more aware of what was going on," he remarked. "Did you not scan the minutes and think, 'Jesus, God, Paul's getting a lot of money there, isn't he?'"

But Brian hadn't, even though the minutes stated that he and a colleague had already met with a recruitment firm to discuss options for a replacement.

Simon wanted to know if Mr Conlan would apologise. The former CRC head paused. "If I have done anything wrong, I certainly will apologise. In all of my eight years as member of the board, coinciding with my eight years as CEO of the Mater Hospital, I did my level best to spread myself as much as I could, to attend board meetings and play the role I was supposed to play," he replied.

The frustration in the room was tangible. The Cregan letter had stated that there was no mention of any "donation" of €700,000 in the minutes of the Friends and Supporters of the CRC.

Words like "misleading", "disingenuous", "falsification" were flung by the members at Mr Conlan.

An irate John Deasy demanded to know what the HSE planned to do about these revelations. When the "full facts" were known, the HSE may have to "involve another statutory agency," replied Mr O'Brien.

And what statutory agency would that be? "It may be necessary to seek the assistance of the Garda Siochana," he stated.

The drip-drip of information was threatening to turn into a flood. Shane Ross had acquired all sorts of details of "exotic" trips taken by CRC employees around the globe -- Nashville, Buenos Aires, Vancouver and that destination beloved of Irish organisations funded by the taxpayer, Orlando in Florida.

By the end of the three-and-a-half-hour session, Mr Conlan looked drained. The committee were -- as Shane Ross put it -- "gobsmacked".

But CRC's wall of silence has been breached, and everyone in the room was left with the conviction that lots more revelations will tumble through now.

It's a twisted web, alright. But it certainly isn't pretty.

Irish Independent

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