Disgraced former chief executive of suicide prevention charity Console Paul Kelly threatened to sue the HSE if any details about the financial scandal emerged just 24 hours before RTÉ’s high-profile exposé on the organisation.
HSE director general Tony O’Brien confirmed Mr Kelly wrote to his officials on June 22 in a last-ditch bid to prevent the crisis from being made public.
Speaking at a special six-hour meeting of the Dáil’s cross-party public accounts committee, Mr O’Brien said less than a day before RTÉ’s exposé on the group the HSE “received legal letters” from Mr Kelly ordering it not to release any information.
Mr O’Brien said the correspondence was an attempt to prevent the audit or its information from being revealed, and that the HSE was at risk of having the details “injuncted up until this week” while High Court cases took place.
Despite the threat of legal action, the HSE did not move to stop the audit, which has been widely reported in recent weeks and is due to be formally published later this month as part of the latest release of the biannual audit files.
He said the correspondence from Mr Kelly, who has since been forced to step down from the charity, was not from a solicitor or lawyer, despite threatening action. Console is in the process of being wound up and replaced by Pieta House.
The latest revelation surrounding the charity was detailed as the six-hour meeting heard PAC member and Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry questioned Mr O’Brien on how much was known about questionable activities at Console before the crisis became apparent.
Noting a HSE official applied for a senior role in the charity in 2008 before returning to the HSE, Mr MacSharry asked why the person had been “seconded” to the organisation.
However, despite being questioned on the matter, Mr O’Brien said this was not a secondment and that the individual involved simply chose to work at the group for a year.
The HSE director general also confirmed audit files relating to Console have been with the garda fraud squad since February.
Facing intense questioning from Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan, Social Democrats TD Roisin Shortall and others over the level of scrutiny of internal audits into charities partially funded by the HSE, assistant national director and auditing chief Geraldine Smith said Console had a “clean” directors’ list, tax cert and charity status up to last year.
The comments came as outgoing interim Console chief executive David Hall told RTÉ Radio’s Liveline programme the State response to what happened at the charity was “flawed” and allowed people’s memories of their deceased loved ones “to be trampled on”.
“I think the most important component here is the reaction ... it needed decisive action. Why did everyone sit on their backsides after Prime Time?” he asked.
At a separate media event, Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said “unscrupulous, unprincipled and unethical people” have no business working in the charities’ sector.
Launching the Charities Regulator’s first national strategy, Ms Fitzgerald said the State watchdog’s work is vital to ensuring the public has trust in groups providing essential services to people in need.
The senior cabinet member said it is important the regulator Paddy Hopkins — who has called for “proper powers of investigation” — receives all the support he needs, “especially given recent disturbing and extraordinary revelations” in the sector. “The regulation of the charity sector will secure its future and protect it against exploitation by unscrupulous, unprincipled and unethical individuals,” he said.
1980s: Mr Kelly impersonates a doctor at a Dublin hospital and a social worker in Cumbria, passing it off as a student prank.
2002: Mr Kelly sets up Console after the death of his sister Susan.
2006: Concerns are raised by a HSE official over Console governance issues.
2009: A second HSE official privately requests a review of the charity’s documentation between 2004 and 2009.
2011: Department of Health officials meet Mr Kelly after a whistleblower tells them the charity chief pretended to be a doctor in the 1980s. No action taken.
2015: HSE internal auditors begin an examination of Console’s financial records. The audit is delayed a number of months at the request of Mr Kelly.
February-April 2016: Completed audit highlights a series of misspending scandals. The Garda fraud squad is informed.
June 23, 2016: RTÉ Prime Time revelations.
July 2016: Mr Kelly is forced to step down. After Revenue Commissioners, Office of Corporate Enforcement and other bodies open investigations, a decision is made to wind down Console, and Pieta House takes on its services.
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