Saturday 23 February 2019

Maeve Sheehan: Flannery's juggling of his multiple roles poses ethical puzzle

The allegations against the former Rehab chief put his priest brother in mind of 'monstering'

BROTHER: Redemptorist priest and writer Fr Tony Flannery. Photo: Frank McGrath
BROTHER: Redemptorist priest and writer Fr Tony Flannery. Photo: Frank McGrath
Frank Flannery at Leinster House in 2012. Picture: Tom Burke
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

AS a priest who had been silenced by the Vatican, Fr Tony Flannery is used to squaring up to the establishment. And last Wednesday evening, the outspoken Redemptorist priest veered away from his usual religious reflections to ponder the pursuit of his older brother, Frank, by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

On his blog that evening, he wrote that he had listened to the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste and politicians of all hues calling his brother to a hearing to answer questions about his pension and consultancy fees from his work with Rehab Group, the disability organisation that Frank Flannery ran for 25 years.

Members of the PAC were on "every possible media outlet", threatening action if he failed to appear. The "insinuations" and allegations against his brother put him in mind of "monstering".

All the while, his brother Frank waited for a proper letter in writing, setting out all these things they wanted to question him about, so he could give "an appropriate response". The atmosphere was so "toxic" and the whole thing so politicised, Fr Flannery asked could anything useful be achieved by his brother appearing before the committee at this stage?

But there is another question Fr Tony Flannery might ponder in relation to his brother. In recent days, Frank Flannery's juggling of roles as political strategist, paid lobbyist and charity leader has posed an ethical puzzle.

Is there a conflict of interest in advising a Government party wearing one hat, while outside the political tent charging thousands of euro to bend the ear of the very politicians he is also advising on electoral strategy?

Is there a conflict of interest in charging the charity he serves as a director tens of thousands to lobby the Government?

Did his friends in government – who include the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and Phil Hogan, the Minister for the Environment – know that the Dail pass they gave him to conduct his Fine Gael business facilitated him in mining an income as a lobbyist?

Frank Flannery resigned last week after revelations that he was paid to lobby the Government for the Rehab Group.

He stood down from his various roles in Fine Gael as well as from the board of the Rehab Group and the part State-funded philanthropic organisation, Forum on Philanthropy, that Phil Hogan asked him to chair. In a further ignominy, he was stripped of his Dail pass.

In a statement last week, Flannery said he fell on his sword to protect the Rehab Group from political controversy. But the ethical questions he raised continue to linger.

In Frank Flannery's world, politics, business interests and charity work happily co-existed for years. He turned Rehab

from a disability charity into an international business, championed gambling as a form of fund-raising, while strategising behind the scenes for Fine Gael. He has been involved in Fine Gael for almost as long as he has with the Rehab Group. His Fine Gael days began at University College Galway in the Sixties and he started working for the Rehab Group in 1973.

His ascent in both was swift. By the Eighties, he was chief executive of Rehab and was working on strategy and communications for the late Fine Gael leader, Garret FitzGerald. By the end of the Eighties, he added another string to his bow when he became involved in a gambling enterprise in the UK.

Rehab earned a sizeable portion of its income from scratch cards and bingo. Presumably he brought this knowledge to bear when he took time out of Rehab to be managing director of Golden Grid, a company behind a computerised version of "spot-the-ball" called Skillball.

The business, set up by a British entrepreneur, promised to raise millions for charity, with a third of the takings going to a trust chaired by former conservative MP, Norman Tebbit. The rest would go to investors.

The game was launched to a fanfare in 1989 London. Within a year, it had foundered. A Labour MP, Brian Wilson, questioned whether the promised donations to charities had materialised, a suggestion quickly countered by Frank Flannery who pointed out that more than STG£200,000 had been handed over to the charitable trust chaired by Tebbit.

Flannery came to be regarded as something of an expert at running charity lotteries. He went on to become chairman of a private company, UK Charitable Lotteries, while involved in Rehab's numerous charity schemes in Ireland.

When the Government introduced the National Lottery in the mid-Nineties and Rehab's lottery sales halved, it was Frank Flannery who led the lobbying of the Fine Gael Coalition Government. To clear the field for the new National Lottery, charity lotteries' prize funds were capped at €10,000, which made them much less attractive to punters.

The Government ended up compensating the lotteries with State handouts. An internal Department of Finance memo singled out Rehab as "the main pressure" behind the introduction of the scheme" and said that it was "consistently forceful" in its continuance.

When the Fine Gael Government started talking about legislating for a casino in 1995, Frank Flannery lobbied Enda Kenny, who was the relevant minister, about his own consortium.

The Rehab Group had joined forces with Crockfords, a UK company that ran private-member casinos in London. The pairing of a disability organisation with gambling dens seemed incongruous but 15 per cent of the proceeds were to go to Rehab.

By then, Flannery had served or was serving on 28 boards. Several of the companies were of the lottery variety, including Littlewoods Lotteries in the UK.

In December 2006, he retired as chief executive of Rehab. His protege, Angela Kerins, took over.

Setting up a "consultancy" was an obvious move for a well-connected ex-charity boss with impeccable political contacts.

He was firmly back in favour with Fine Gael, heralding Enda Kenny as future Taoiseach and predicting future success when others in the party were still licking their wounds from a previous electoral wipe-out.

Flannery founded Larragh Consulting, with his wife, the ex-model Marguerite McCurtain, as co-director in early 2007. It was dissolved two years later, without filing any accounts.

In fact, when his lobbying career did take off, it coincided with the ascent of Fine Gael to government in 2011.

After his pivotal role in the party's general election success, Flannery was in demand. He was retained as a consultant at Insight Consulting, the public relations firm headed by Michael Parker that has advised Rehab down through the years.

He was appointed chair of the Forum of Philanthropy by Phil Hogan. As revealed last week, he was paid around €60,000 a year by one of the Forum's members to press the Government on tax reforms.

Perhaps he was worth the money. When the Forum on Philanthropy produced a report recommending some tax reforms, it got such a decent airing with the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, that it was forwarded to an Oireachtas Committee.

Meanwhile, Flannery came back into the fold at Rehab. He joined the board of the Rehab Group as a director. Later, he was paid by the Rehab Group to lobby the Government on issues close to its heart.

One of those issues was the charity lottery compensation scheme, which the government planned to scrap. Alan Shatter, the Minister for Justice who was pushing this through, said last week that he had one meeting with Rehab about it and that Frank Flannery was part of the delegation. Rehab paid Flannery €66,000 in 2012 and €11,000 in 2011 for "professional services". But invoices disclosed last week showed that his "professional services" included successful lobbying on the charity lottery funds, as well as lobbying the Departments of Education and Social Protection.

In another cosy tie-up, Flannery owned a part share in a company, Complete Eco Solutions – along with Angela Kerins's husband Sean Kerins and brother Joseph McCarthy – that was set up for the specific purpose of importing coffins from China that were to be assembled in Rehab's plant in Kilkenny.

It's not known how much, if any, money was made by this company but Rehab ended up making a loss. There was no demand for the coffins and the project failed, although the company – Complete Eco Solutions – remains in existence with Frank Flannery as a director along with Joseph McCarthy.

Rehab saw no conflict in this. And when last August, the Examiner reported that Frank Flannery had signed off on a European award for excellence for a Rehab company, he denied there was any conflict there either.

Frank Flannery was on the board of the European Platform on Disability that gave out the awards, and Angela Kerins was its president.

Last week Ruairi Quinn, the Minister for Education, said he couldn't recall being lobbied as such by Frank Flannery but did recall him raising issues of concern in ministerial corridors on the morning of a Cabinet meeting.

When Angela Kerins was grilled by the PAC a fortnight ago, politicians criticised Frank Flannery for not showing up. In fact, that day he was dining elsewhere in Leinster House with a Government minister.

One lobbyist who asked not to be named last week said: "It seems he was intoxicated by the ease of the whole thing, hubris took over and he dropped his guard".

Sunday Independent

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