MATT COOPER: It’s not just Bertie’s buddies who’ve survived to enjoy very lavish salaries

THE scandal at the Central Remedial Clinic is a gift to the Government. Here we have an organisation seemingly plundering charitable funds, to feather the nests of a group of Fianna Fáil insiders, all of whom can be linked easily to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

The HSE, under this Government’s control can be seen to have acted against what it found; the HSE under the previous government is fighting allegations that it endorsed what went on.

There is no other way to describe it as other than a scandal. The secret use of money for salaries and pensions by a charity that donors believed would be used for the benefit of those who need medical assistance cannot be excused in any circumstances. The use of it in such large quantities increases the scale of this scandal.

Words such as ‘scandal’ have to be used carefully, of course, when lawyers are about. But the public should be entitled to draw fair conclusions from the facts that are in the public domain. The CRC, which provides essential services to handicapped children and adults, gets €19m each year from the Health Service Executive, the bulk of its funding.

In return it commits to its following certain rules. One of those rules pertains to the level of pay to executives. The CRC payments to its top brass were massively out of line with what was required.

The case of Ahern’s friend Paul Kiely, a member of what has been called ‘the Drumcondra mafia’, is most instructive. He got a salary of €106,900, paid by the HSE. The CRC board decided that this was not enough and topped it up with an additional salary of €116,949 and an allowance of €19,016.

No comment about this is probably necessary; you can supply your own. But two further things about this warrant attention. One is the source of the additional money, the other the claim by Des Peelo (remember him, accountant to Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern in their times of public need?) that as chairman of the CRC he did a deal with the HSE about the top-ups for Kiely and eight other CRC officials.

Peelo said that none of the additional money paid to these people came from charitable donations, such as the “buy a bear and show you care” campaign, golf classics and the like. Instead, it came from income on its lottery at the Friends and Supporters of the CRC. As if that makes things much better; yes, people who gamble on the raffles do so because they may want to win a prize, but I suspect most bought tickets or lines on the basis that the money would go to the good causes of helping patients. This is a classic case of splitting hairs.

Then Peelo made the claim that as far back as 2009 the HSE was aware that the management at CRC had contracts for enhanced rates of pay above HSE guidelines and that it had been agreed that these could not be altered until the contracts ran out. He claims to have attended a meeting with some of the top people in the HSE, including two at near the highest level. He stated that the HSE endorsed the practices of topping up the salary of senior managers beyond the HSE funded and limited amount, as long as it came out of other non-HSE funds. He said it was “on-the-record” and “in writing”.

The HSE denied this vehemently and has been supported by health minister James Reilly. It said there is no paperwork to support the claim, although this is not a denial that such a meeting took place. It would not be surprising if no paperwork was created after such a meeting, deliberately. We may never know in the absence of an independent review.

There’s more. Independent TD Shane Ross, who has been superb on this issue now that he has the bit between his teeth, has examined the accounts of the one of the private CRC bodies and found that it made it a transfer, via an interest-free, unsecured loan, of €3m to cover pensions at the CRC.

Simultaneously, it made a provision against repayment of this loan on the basis that there were “uncertainties regarding the long-term ability of the clinic to repay”. This makes it a gift by any other name. But to whose benefit? Peelo, who left the CRC three years ago, has had an answer for that one too in the RTÉ interview he conducted. He said that 70 pensioners in the CRC will benefit, that the payment was necessary because of pension fund rules and recommendations. He suggested the money will be repaid by 2017, although it is almost impossible to see how that would be the case.

Peelo and Kiely are not the only men associated with Fianna Fáil to serve on the CRC board. Former junior minister and chief whip Vincent Brady has been on the board since 1998. Jim Nugent, who succeeded Peelo as chairman, was one of Ahern’s “dig-out” men, a regular at Ahern’s annual fund-raising dinner. He spent three terms as chairman of CERT and a spell as a director of the Central Bank.

Nugent was central to the appointment of Brian Conlan as Kiely’s replacement as chief executive last year. Conlan was certainly well placed to get the gig, having retired from a senior position at the Mater Hospital (the only place Ahern was ever employed outside of politics).

CONLAN had been on the CRC board for nine years and effectively he swapped positions with Kiely on the latter’s retirement.

To its credit, the HSE fought the manner of this appointment — the job was not advertised publicly — but was unable to stop it as Nugent was able to claim that the CRC’s articles of association entitled it to appoint who it wanted (even if the HSE was footing the bill). The HSE did win the battle over his pay, stopping the practice of top-ups as this was a new contract. Conlan has had to settle for €83,252. Nugent only gave up the fight it seems when told that the HSE might suspend €250,000 in annual payments if he didn’t. This is all shocking stuff as a raft of ministers, led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, has not been slow to tell us in recent days.

But here’s the rub. In the lifetime of this Government there have been at least seven appointments of advisers to Government at rates well in excess of the public sector pay ceiling for the grade (and President Michael D Higgins has appointed two at an excess rate). People like Kenny himself are guilty of this, as are Joan Burton, Richard Bruton, Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar, Brendan Howlin and Pat Rabbitte. This is money that did not come from charitable sources, but from the taxpayer. So all of the angst and hand-wringing from the Government over breaches of pay guidelines seems a touch hypocritical, doesn’t it?

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm

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