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Charity boss 'devastated' by allegations


Tony Heffernan

Tony Heffernan

Michelle Cooper Galvin

Tony Heffernan

The founder and CEO of Kerry-based children's charity, The Saoirse Foundation, has said he and his wife have been left heartbroken by suggestions of financial irregularities within the charity.

CEO of The Saoirse Foundation, Tony Heffernan from Keel, was responding to the controversy that emerged in the national media at the weekend following the sudden resignation of four of the charity's seven directors.

It was reported that the shock departure of the members, including the treasurer and chairman, came when an agreement in February to undertake a forensic accounting and governance review of the charity was not followed through.

The ex-directors also raised a number of other issues, including alleged discrepancies in the amount an external fundraiser claimed to have donated; the manner in which €270,000 was paid to foreign research institutions, as well as payment of expenses to Mr Heffernan despite claims on the charity's official website that board members don't receive payment or expenses.

Questions were also raised as to the whether or not the theft of €800 worth of equipment from the charity's Bumbleance last September actually occurred, and why there is such a delay in getting Bumbleance II up and running.

Responding to the allegations, Mr Heffernan said this week that he and his wife Mary, who set up the charity in memory of their daughter Saoirse, are devastated at any suggestions that the foundation's financial affairs are not entirely above board. He insists that he never blocked a governance review, but did object to a proposed open-ended audit.

"We did agree to a governance review in February, but what was signed wasn't what we had agreed and I said it couldn't go ahead," Mr Heffernan said. "There was no cap and no cost for the audit and I wasn't going to sign a cheque for anyone to print money."

Referring to questions raised in one newspaper regarding payment of €270,000 for foreign research projects, Mr Heffernan described the situation as 'ridiculous', insisting that both projects - one in London and one in the US - were fully sanctioned and had legally binding contracts, copies of which were given to all directors.

In relation to alleged discrepancies regarding an external fundraiser, Mr Heffernan said that all permits for the event in question were in the charity's name and that all money collected was processed through the Saoirse Foundation office and a statement sent out to the individual in question. He said the statement was 'tabulated perfectly' and that the individual received accounts that were up to date at that time.

As for his own expenses, Mr Heffernan said that there had been a 'mistake' on the website, whereby he, as CEO, does receive vouched expenses. He insisted, however, that these are only paid where receipts are produced. He does not, however, receive a salary from the charity.

Among the most upsetting aspects of the situation, Mr Heffernan says, is the suggestion that the theft of €800 worth of medical equipment from the Bumblebance last September may not have happened. It has been claimed that CCTV footage appeared to show the incident 'may not have taken place.' The story about the theft prompted an influx of donations to the charity in the aftermath.

"This is the first I've ever heard about CCTV footage and any suggestions that I went to the media before [going to] the gardaí about the theft are completely untrue," he said.

Meanwhile, Bumbleance II is very much on track, Mr Heffernan insisted, stating that he and his wife Mary approved its purchase back in November and that the chassis was paid for just last April. The delay, he said, is down to the busy workload of the manufacturers.

Devastated by suggestions of any wrongdoing and insisting that he doesn't not know why the directors resigned, Mr Heffernan said he and Mary are utterly heartbroken.

"I just wish this had been dealt with internally and we are absolutely devastated that this has happened. It is just unbelievable and our hearts are broken," he said.

"It's bad enough that we've lost our two children but now to have people thinking we've done anything wrong is just horrible. This could have devastating consequences for the charity," he said.

"The Saoirse Foundation has never been about money for us; it's like our third child," Mr Heffernan said.