The words of Simon Harris (Fine Gael) encapsulated the sheer disbelief at the information that emerged at yesterday’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on the pay, perks and pensions at the senior levels of the Central Remedial Clinic.
“Pure dynamite” is how Limerick TD, Kieran O’Donnell (FG) described the story of how a charity, Friends and Supporters of the CRC — which raised funds through volunteers up and down the country for disability services — was turned into a “slush fund” for top management.
As he digested the information, Robert Dowds — a Labour TD who worked in a CRC school before he was elected to the Dáil in 2011 — said: “I thought the limits of my shock had been reached at the last meeting.”
On that occasion, just before Christmas, the former CEO, Paul Kiely — who was being questioned about his top-up payments amounting to €136,000 from charity donations — revealed he got a lump-sum payment of €200,000 when he stepped down from the position in June.
That meeting, and the public outrage it caused, eventually resulted in the entire board of the CRC resigning, necessitating the HSE to step in to run the service that hundreds of children and adults with disability depend on.
When the interim manager, John Cregan, was sent in to take charge, he discovered there was a lot more to the story than had previously met the eye.
Some of what he found was revealed in a letter to HSE boss Tony O’Brien on Tuesday which was distributed to PAC members at the start of their meeting.
Mr Cregan had found details of pension arrangements for Mr Kiely, showing he was granted a total final package of €742,000.
At the same time, a payment of €700,000 was made by the Friends and the Supporters — almost half the total money it collected last year from charity donations. Their internal accounts describe this as a “donation” — wording that John Deasy (FG) believes “was done to deceive”.
The Waterford TD put it to the HSE that the description was misleading. “We would certainly expect more information,” said HSE auditor Geraldine Smith. When it was put to her again that it was misleading, she said “it is”.
Barry O’Brien of the HSE then gave assurances that they would take “whatever steps necessary” including seeking assistance from other statutory agencies. “It may be necessary to seek the assistance of the Garda Siochána,” he said.
Mr O’Donnell said the money “wasn’t a donation” but “money that was collected by ordinary people around the country and used to feather the nest of managers.”
The board of governors never intended the information to get out in this way. When they agreed to the pension package, they also decided it would be subject to “a legally binding confidentiality clause”.
Unfortunately for them, the HSE don’t see it that way. They also released the minutes of the board meeting at which the package was finally agreed, which said “acceptance of this package was in line with the recommendation of the remuneration sub-committee who had considered it at a meeting on Mar 11”.
The minutes, or details of that meeting, have not yet been located, which would go a way in explaining how they reached their decision.
It might have been helpful so, that one member of the board at the time, Brian Conlon, who replaced Mr Kiely as chief executive, was in front of the PAC as such matters emerged.
But his nervous and often contradictory evidence, in the words of Mary Lou McDonald (SF) amounted to “the dog ate my ecker”.
To the disbelief of members, Mr Conlon said the first he had heard of the pension arrangements was when he saw it on the media late the night before.
“Do you think it’s credible that, as CEO, when you were looking at bank statements, that you would not ask the question, where did it go and what was it used for?” Mr O’Donnell asked.
“When I joined at first, I had other priorities. My understanding was that the pension was sorted out, and that it was €200,000,” Mr Conlon said. At first he said he never knew the meeting was taking pace. He later revealed he was out of the country, on holidays in Spain, when it happened and he sent his apologies, but never heard what happened at it.
As for the other board members “were they just sitting there, like nodding dogs or were they living up to their duties as directors?” Mr Harris inquired.
The meetings were “usually unspectacular” Mr Conlon said to laughter, to which the chair, John McGuinness (FF) said the package agreed was pretty spectacular indeed.
By the time they made it through the “twisted web” to the foreign travel revelations including trips around the world paid for by a credit card held by CRC Medical Devices, even the boys from Fás must have been blushing.
The state training agency courted its fair share of controversy for globe trotting officials, but why would a wheelchair distribution company need to spend €14,000 on travel and €3,900 on entertainment? It would have been funny only for the money being used in this way was intended for such an important service — providing education, therapies, sheltered work, skills training, social and psychological services and mobility assistance to people with disabilities.
Deputy Dowds reminded the committee that the centre he worked at in Clondalkin was “in a ramshackled state. The electrics are dodgy, the roof is leaking and we had a situation during the Celtic Tiger years where three plans were put up on the notice board for a new building.”
But he noted, unlike the dishing out of cash for Mr Kiely “nothing positive ever came of that”.