The HSE director general Mr O’Brien said the health service “was not responsible for the management and oversight of Console”, as he described the crisis as being as complex as the Hollywood film Catch Me If You Can.
Speaking during a six-hour meeting with the Dáil’s cross-party public accounts committee, in which another HSE official described what happened as an “aberration”, Mr O’Brien said he was “appalled” by the details of the “heart-sinking” internal audit when it emerged.
However, facing accusations that officials were “hoodwinked” by the charity’s ex-chief executive Paul Kelly and should have acted on concerns about its work raised in 2006, 2009, and 2011, Mr O’Brien said the HSE responded as soon as it could to the complicated situation.
Responding to allegations from Labour deputy leader Alan Kelly that the HSE did not act quickly enough on “various alerts” over a number of years, he said the reality of what happened was like Catch Me If You Can, meaning the exact details were difficult to uncover.
The 2002 blockbuster was based on the real-life actions of Frank Abagnale, who conned people out of millions of dollars in the 1960s by posing as a Pan American airways pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, among other false identities.
“You wonder if you are talking about the actor Leonardo DiCaprio [who starred in the film] or someone else,” the HSE director general said when asked to explain the complex nature of the investigation.
Mr O’Brien strongly rejected claims that he or his officials were at fault for failing to act on a series of issues surrounding Console over the past decade, after the claims were raised by Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan, Independent Catherine Connolly, and Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane.
The issues included concerns raised about service quality in the charity in 2006; a review of documentation between 2004 and 2009 requested by a senior HSE National Office of Suicide Prevention official due to governance issues at the charity; and Department of Health officials meeting with Mr Kelly in 2011 after it emerged he posed as a doctor in the 1980s.
Asked if a more rigorous oversight system is now needed, Mr O’Brien said the trend only becomes obvious when looking back at what happened, adding that the bigger problem is that while some cases are identified quickly “we have people waiting in the long grass”.
“We caught one this time. But that doesn’t mean there are not more out there, and that is the unfortunate reality,” he said.
The view was supported by the HSE’s assistant national director for auditing, Dr Geraldine Smith.
However, in a sign of the extraordinary nature of the Console probe, she added when questioned by Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald: “I don’t think we will ever see another situation like Console.
“Console was absolutely an aberration.”
Underlining the bizarre events of the scandal, HSE officials also told the committee that when they asked for records from Mr Kelly to verify figures given to their audit team, they were instead handed “boxes” of photographs of Mr Kelly meeting celebrities “including heads of state” in a bid to show his trustworthiness.