In March 1998 it became publicly known that the Moriarty Tribunal had questioned Hugh Coveney about whether he had a secret offshore account with Ansbacher Bank, a bank which had become notorious for facilitating tax-evasion. Ten days later, on 13 March 1998, Coveney visited his solicitor to change his will. The next day, 14 March 1998, Coveney died in a fall from a seaside cliff while out walking alone. His son, Simon Coveney, insisted that his father had never held an Ansbacher account. It later emerged that Hugh Coveney had $175,000 on deposit in the secret Cayman Island-based bank. The account was closed in 1979.
Simon Coveney was later elected to succeed his father in the resulting by-election on 3 November 1998.
Simon Coveney is tipped to become the next Taoiseach of Ireland.
Now that the Government’s intention to proceed with the current fee regime seems clear (and indeed add new fee provisions) we should give our view on what his happening to FOI in Ireland. And unfortunately what we outline below is not an April Fool’s joke.
Back in 2009, TheStory.ie was established by myself and Mark Coughlan. We started this website for a few reasons, but one of the main ones was to obtain information from the Irish government in a systematic way using tools like the Freedom of Information Act (FOI).
We felt that FOI was being used in a very specific and narrow way, and in general was being used by journalists but not by the general public. We also felt that the implementation of the law was generally poor, largely because of the 2003 amendment to that law, and in general on how it is perceived by the people handling the requests. We committed to doing FOI in a new better way, and to publish any information we received on here.
Just after our first blog post, you, our readers asked to help with our effort. To that end you donated money to the cause, in order to fund our FOI requests – which is often an expensive and time consuming process (thanks to Ireland having FOI fees, and those fees being the highest in the world).
We used that money over the subsequent years to make requests, make appeals, pay for search and retrieval – and we’ve been quite successful. We argued the public’s case for transparency in NAMA at the High Court using AIE (a bit like FOI), and won (twice). We set precedents around the public interest override on personal information and on Cabinet records. In 5 years we sent over 200 requests, just in Ireland. We obtained never before seen documents from the ECB, and forced them to justify to the EU Ombudsman their refusal to release the Trichet/Lenihan letter. We used the US FOI Act, the British one, the European one, the ECB’s one and the Irish one.
During that time, the Fianna Fail administration fell. A new government was elected with promises of reform. One such proposal was to “restore the FOI Act” to it’s pre 2003 state. This was an indication that fees might be removed. But we were sceptical. And we were right – the promise was empty. A draft Bill appeared, then a pre-legislative process (in which we engaged extensively), then a full Bill appeared. Then a sneaky amendment appeared at Committee Stage that had never been mentioned before. And now we are at Report Stage, on the brink of passing a new law.
TheStory.ie for 4 years has used certain tactics in its FOI requests. These tactics have been developed because of how the current law operates and because of how poorly it’s implemented. These tactics and skills have, over that time, been passed on to other journalists, readers and citizens alike via blog posts and training to hundreds of people in person, over 1,000 subscribers and through more than 400,000 unique visits.
But now things are changing. Pretty much every method we developed to obtain access to information from government over the past 4 years are being legislated against.
We are somewhat flattered that the Government is probably drafting laws that target us – but we are also deeply concerned. Who benefits? The public certainly do not. Why would a government draft sections of a law to specifically target tactics used by a small blog?
Let’s go through two of these:
1. Multi-faceted requests
Because we were being charged €15 for every request, and because we were receiving donations from our readers, we were obliged to get as much information for every request as possible. This meant asking for multiple things in each request. This is called getting value for money. It would be remiss of us not to do this. Sounds reasonable, right?
The State’s reaction to us using this tactic has been categorical. An amendment to Section 12 of the Bill was drafted in secret, the wording of which had never appeared in any drafts in almost a year of pre-legislative scrutiny (in which we were involved). It was introduced at Committee Stage several months after the pre-legislative phase and months after the draft Bill was published. Here it was:
This is the State legislating against a tactic we at thestory.ie had successfully used and promoted for 4 years. And we only used it because of the unjustified €15 fee. If there was no fee, there would be no multi-faceted requests. Why did it appear so late in the process? Who proposed it? Who benefits from it? Who lobbied for it? Why was no one told about its drafting? What purpose does it serve? Does it serve the public interest?
Or is it an attempt by the State to prevent access to information, by blocking a workaround to the unjustified, and likely illegal, fee regime? We think it is, and have good reason to believe so, based on information we have seen. We also believe the multifaceted “issue” has been inflated to justify the addition of Section 12 (9).
2. Access to databases
In 2009 at the height of the John O’Donoghue scandal we sent our first request for a database. Not just parts of a database, but a whole one. And we wanted in a format like Excel. A request was sent to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism seeking the expense claims of everyone at the Department since the inception of the database – what is referred to as a datadump. We were refused, and spent over €200 of your money appealing that refusal.
Once it got to the Information Commissioner we reached a settlement with the Department and the data was released as asked. This was one of the first times an entire dataset was released, and with this knowledge we obtained dozens more databases, usually spending data, from several other public bodies, and made the entirety available online. This amount of State spending had never appeared online before in such detail or in such amounts. The data from An Garda Siochana and the HSE alone totalled nearly half a billion euro. We were trying to establish a precedent that any citizen could obtain raw data from a public authority.
When the FOI Bill was published last summer, Section 17 (4) appeared and again this had not come up during the pre-legislative phase. It came out of the blue when the Bill was published. Sound familiar?
Simon McGarr over at TuppEd pointed out the ridiculousness of the Section, as drafted:
(4) Where an FOI request relates to data which are contained in more than one record
held on an electronic device by the FOI body concerned—
(a) the FOI body shall not be required to take any step that involves the creation of
anything for the purpose of searching for, or extracting, records that did not exist
at the time of the making of the FOI request,
(b) subject to paragraph (a), the FOI body shall take reasonable steps to search for
and extract the records to which the request relates, having due regard to the steps
that would be considered reasonable if the records were held in paper format, and
whether or not such steps result in the creation of a new record,
(c) if the reasonable steps referred to in paragraph (b) result in the creation of a new
record, that record shall, for the purposes of considering whether or not such new
record should be disclosed in response to the request, be deemed to have been
created on the date of receipt of the FOI request,
(d) subject to this subsection, an FOI body is not required by this Act to take any
steps by way of manipulation, analysis, compilation or other processing of any
such records, or any data contained in records, held by the body.
Out of sheer embarrassment the State subsequently removed some elements of this Section – the bits that refer to “paper”. But the rest remain.
Again, a tactic we had repeatedly and successfully used over the past 4 years was being legislated against. This new provision, taken to its logical conclusion, prevents the type of requests we have been doing. And again we know it is probably us being targeted because we are among the only ones using the tactic (others using the tactic were journalists we shared knowledge with). Who drafted the section? Who does it benefit? Why was it drafted? What purpose does it serve? Who lobbied for it?
So in summary:
1. Try to get around upfront FOI fees by asking for more than one item in each request. Effectively outlawed.
2. Try to ask for databases as a method of getting more data from one request. Effectively outlawed.
3. Try to ask for email data using Outlook Exchange queries. Effectively outlawed.
4. Try to get more information using digital methods. Give more discretion to FOI officers to charge more.
5. Try to appeal unjustified decisions to the Information Commissioner. Multiplication of fees due to affects of 1).
6. Try to be an engaged citizen, interested in transparency. Do something. Legislated against.
7. Try to obtain information efficiently, be reasonable. Get horrendous search and retrieval estimates.
The media’s ability to scrutinise things like State spending and the rights to freedom of expression of the people of Ireland are being legislated against, and secrecy is prevailing.
Minister Howlin and others will say we’re being alarmist. But they would say that wouldn’t they?
They’re the ones legislating against the tactics we’ve been using.
Welcome to Ireland in 2014.
Three ways to make a Solicitor think twice …
1. ALWAYS CHALLENGE THEIR AUTHORITY.
When you get a “legal letter”, from a Solicitor, you could direct them to send you a copy of their appointment/authority to act for or on behalf of their alleged client. In other words a copy of the alleged contract between them, and the bank or financial institution etc., on whose behalf they may be operating. After all, they may just be trying it on, or may not in fact be authorised to represent the party, that they claim they represent. It’s always good to be on the safe side.
2. DIRECT THEM TO GIVE YOU THEIR PII DETAILS.
EVERY professional practicing Solicitor that is or may be registered with “The Law Society of Ireland”, has to be professionally indemnified or insured. This is called “Professional Indemnity Insurance” or PII for short. This PII is a legal requirement, if they don’t have it, they are not allowed to legally practice. When you direct them to give you their PII details, and the name of their insurer etc., they are legally obliged to inform their insurer, that they have been asked for this information, as there may be a potential risk/case where they could be sued. This alerts their insurer, and thus their premium (insurance payment), may go up because of the increased risk of being sued. This hurts them in the pocket.
3. COPY YOUR LETTERS & QUESTIONS TO ALL PARTIES CONCERNED.
Whenever you write to a Solicitor, make sure to copy ALL other parties that may potentially be concerned with the respective Solicitors acts, behaviours and omissions etc., and direct that the Solicitor concerned, when or if replying and or answering your questions, copy his/her answers to all parties inculcated/involved, named and listed in your letter. Some parties you might consider listing are as follows: Ken Murphy the Director General of the Law Society of Ireland, Alan Shatter the Minister for Justice, Martin Callanan the Garda Commissioner, Marie R Whelan the Attorney General, Susan Gageby Denham the Chief Justice, Ian Drennan the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement and so on ad infinitum.
This is just some of the many ways that we have to divest a Solicitor, and make them think twice about their barratry (selling justice for money). We will review and discuss many more of these ways and methods at the final 2013 School of Commonology. This is material that has been tried and tested. Solicitors hate it because it hits them where it hurts; in the pocket. Perhaps it is time that a few more Solicitors and members of the legal professions, are brought to book for their deception, theft and forgery amongst other things?
We would appreciate that you would share this email and information with all of your friends, family and community. Education will help you legally protect yourselves.
As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.
Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 3
Ahern engineers corrupt deal with Coillte to profit the company he chairs-and the defined benefit pension fund of Coillte employees.
Taxpayers of Ireland cheated again by this conniving little scumbag!
The Woodland League, a not-for-profit NGO that has long campaigned against the sale of Coillte public forest assets, are concerned about a possible link between the collapse of the asset-management company, Helvetia Wealth, and Irish pension funds. Helvetia Wealth are the parent of the Irish subsidiary known as the International Forestry Fund (IFF).
In 2010 Helvetia appointed Bertie Ahern to chair the International Forestry Fund (IFF). Dublin-based IFF was funding investment in forestry companies and assets, mainly in Europe, and had expressed an interest in buying Coillte, the manager of Ireland’s public forests. The latest information on Helvetia is that they have appealed a 1.2 billion Swiss franc bankruptcy charge. In a letter to shareholders, Helvetia provide a basic explanation of what has transpired, they go on to request help to raise one million Swiss francs to avoid bankruptcy.
The Woodland League would like to know the extent of the involvement and exposure of IFUT (the Irish Forestry Unit Trust) in relation to the collapse of Helvetia Wealth. IFUT manage semi-state and state employee pension funds as well as the funds of private investors, including charities. Since 2009, IFUT have accessed €50 million from the National Pension Reserve Fund (NPRF), to purchase forests from Coillte to plug the hole in its employee pension fund which, at that time, stood at €179 million. The partners in IFUT, established in 1994 are Coillte along with Bank Of Ireland, Allied Irish Bank, and Irish Life, all failed financial entities. Coillte used 15 million punts worth of public forest assets as equity in the partnership. Coillte has been selling public forest assets to IFUT since 1994, in total approx 40,000 acres have been sold, almost exclusively to IFUT, without any accountability to the public owner of the assets.
Andrew St Ledger, a spokesperson for Woodland League said, ” We also understand that Coillte have a legal obligation to supply IFUT with forest assets when the trust is in deficit”. The Coillte Annual Report of 2011, under ‘Contingencies and Commitments’, makes clear that this is no ordinary financial-arrangement: “The trust deed of the Irish Forestry Unit Trust commits the Group [Coillte] to providing liquidity to the fund if it is needed. This commitment would require the purchase of forests by the Group from the Irish Forestry Unit Trust representing up to 15% of the value of the fund. This is subject to an annual limit of the lesser of 5% of the value of the fund or €4,400,000. The maximum amount that the Group can be required to purchase is €38,000,000”.
These public assets that Coillte sell to IFUT have never been put out to tender in the wider market, to maximise the return which may be in contravention of EU competition rules. Andrew St Ledger, continued, “We enquired of this situation via a parliamentary question asked by Clare Daly TD in December 2013 to which Minister Coveney could not provide an answer, he responded saying that he was waiting for Coillte to supply the information to his department.”
Coillte have a monopoly on the supply of timber to the Irish market, being the largest forestry company with access to the public assets as a free resource. According to an Industry representative who contacted the League, It appears that for many years, after Coillte unload their timber harvest, there has been a recurrent annual timber shortfall. IFUT have been conveniently on hand with the timber they have procured from Coillte at a fixed rate, which they are then able to sell back to the market at a much higher price. In order to remain competitive, some sawmills have resorted to importing timber from Scotland and beyond, calling into question the repeated of claims of sustainable forestry practice by Coillte and its lauded FSC ecolabel. This issue was raised, while Coillte were before the joint Oireachtas committee on Agriculture, at the end of November 2013, Coillte were unable to provide satisfactory answers. In a related query, Coillte did accept that the department of agriculture was conducting an investigation into claims of falsification of weights of timber harvested by forestry contractors on behalf of Coillte.
The Woodland league once again urges Ministers Simon Coveney and Michael Noonan – the only shareholders in Coillte on behalf of the Irish people (Coveney holding one share and Noonan being the main shareholder with 99 shares) – to thoroughly investigate these matters surrounding Coillte and IFUT. Both appear to be facilitating the ongoing transference of publicly-owned forest assets into private hands and operating as a cartel in the forest industry. The league also reiterates its call for the review of Coillte report conducted by New Era to be placed in the public domain, adding the urgency to bring Coillte along with IFUT into the reach of the reach of the FOI Act.
The League believe that public forest assets have been manipulated and squandered for the benefit of a minority. This has had detrimental consequences for Irish forest policy and, in turn, on the economy of this country. Why are public forest assets and National Pension Reserve Funds being used to prop up and guarantee state employee pensions in the future, preventing a much needed large annual dividend going back into state coffers. Why are Coillte and IFUT allowed to monopolize the Irish timber supply market, these and many other questions need to be answered.
“The collapse of Helvetia with its links to the Irish forestry industry should serve as another wake up call to the Irish people; major questions remain unanswered as to how our public forest assets are being managed and for whose benefit ” Mr St Ledger concluded.
Time Line for Irish Forestry sector events since the creation of Coillte.
1989. Coillte are established as a private limited company under 1988 Forestry Act by a Fianna Fàil government with Bertie Ahern as minister for Labour.
1993 Pensions Act, tax free investment in forestry, no capital gains tax when land is purchased with trees, Bertie Ahern is minister for finance.
1994 IFUT is set up by Coillte using 15m punts worth of public forests, with AIB, BOI, and Irish Life.
2009 FF/Green coalition announce possible sale of Coillte in line with IMF/Troika demands.
2009 International Forestry Fund is set up by Helvetia.
2009 Coillte have pension fund deficit of 179 million euros and sell 33m euros of public forests to IFUT.
2009 Coillte facing major cash flow problem seek National Pension Reserve Fund money, 10m euros NPRF channelled via IFUT to Coillte.
2010 Coillte sell 30m euros of public forests to IFUT.
2010 Bertie Ahern is made chairman of the International Forestry Fund who express an interest in buying Coillte.
2010 The last available IFUT Annual accounts and breach of company reporting requirements.
2011 NPRF total forestry investment stands at 35m euros.
2011 Coillte sell 37m euros of public forests to IFUT.
2012 Coillte sales to IFUT, the information is not yet available.
2013 Coillte pension fund deficit down to 29m euros, Coillte employees and ex CEO take separate court case regards the management of the pension funds.
2013 Helvetia charged with bankruptcy in Switzerland.
2013 wind down of NPRF and its remaining funds subsumed into New Era.
Request Irish Water/Uisce Eireann to answer my following questions before I decide to consider accepting your offer of a Smart Water Meter.
1 Will the water supplied by you contain Fluoride and/or other chemicals.
2 Can you issue an invoice to me specifying the full cost of your water meter,including VAT,and specify payment method and rate of interest,if interest is charged.
3 Can you furnish me with a contract between you the supplier and me the purchaser of the service.?
4 Can you inform me of the price per litre of your product (water) as I may wish to source an alternative supplier if your product is prohibitively expensive.
5 Can you inform me of the amount of “free” water allocated to my home.?
6Can you confirm that Irish water will remain in State ownership and will not be sold to any Company or Corporation whose first priority would be to it's shareholders and not to the supply of clean ,safe water to Irish consumers.
7 Can you confirm the rate of pulses per minute of your Sappel or other “smart” meters.
8 Can you specify what tests were carried out by Irish Water or others to measure the radiation coming from your smart meters and furnish me with the results.
9 In the event of damage or theft of the meter by a third party can you confirm that I,the homeowner will not be liable as the meters bare located outside the boundary of my home.
10 In the event of a meter malfunctioning can you confirm that I the homeowner will not be liable for incorrect readings and possibly highly inaccurate water bills.
11 Can you give me a guarantee that information collected by you from smart meters will not be sold or made available to third parties.
12 Can I request a traditional water meter instead of a smart meter because of health concerns.
Please reply in writing to my information request.
Then something else happens, and the squawking moves on. Mostly, I ignore the opportunistic attention-seeking of all involved, but this Irish Water thing is bugging me.
I don’t mind the meters. No one appreciates anything when it’s free. Charging for water is the only way to get people to repair leaks and stop flushing their toilet at the drop of a hat.
The only shame about water meters is that they weren’t installed during the building boom because the retro-fitting is a terrible waste of money.
I didn’t even mind the millions flung at IBM, solicitors, accountants and consultants. The existence of a golden circle of professionals is one of the nauseous facts of life that one is better off ignoring, because if you think about it too much you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.
This business about too many county council workers being transferred into the new company has shades of the HSE fiasco all over it. But even this, in a supreme act of denial, I manage to push aside. Sure if we’re paying their salaries and pensions anyway, does it matter if it’s from drawer A or drawer B?
I know that’s over simplistic, but I don’t bloody care because what’s driving me to shout at the radio is why everyone – except the socialists – is ignoring the real issue. And no one listens to the socialists.
But we should be listening to them, because they’re right about one thing: privatisation. This is the long game and everything else is a sideshow.
There’s no harm investing taxpayers’ money to build a good company that will improve water services for the country.
There is enormous harm when that company is tarted up and flogged off to a bunch of venture capitalists in five years time.
They’ll proceed to leech every cent out of the company, refuse to invest anything in it, increase the charges annually, control vital national infrastructure and then dump it in another few years to other venture capitalists, who were too stupid to buy it the first time.
That crowd will weigh it down with debt in an attempt to extract “value”, i.e cash, from it. It’ll go on for 20 years until, finally, the consensus emerges that it was all a terrible mistake. In other words, it’ll turn out just like Telecom Eireann.
And if you think the consultants got too much money for the set-up; multiply it by a hundred for the privatisation.
It’s insane to standby and watch a repeat of the Telecom Eireann disaster. We’ll be solemnly told that auctioning off Irish Water will be a great way to reduce the national debt. Maybe they’ll promise to put some of the money in a pension fund — just like with Telecom Eireann.
They might even persuade us to buy shares in it ourselves. Just like with Telecom Eireann. And the trade unions, who claim to be left wing, won’t say a word because the employees will personally cash in, perhaps even tax free, just like with Telecom Eireann.
There’s only one way to stop this and that’s now.
The Government, under Enda Kenny (left), has said publicly that there’s no intention to sell Irish Water.
Okay, then let’s have legislation to say it can’t be privatised unless there’s a four-fifths majority in the Dail. If the Government believes what it says, how can it oppose that?
I’d love to see our fragmented Opposition get its act together on this one. They need to stop squawking, suppress both egos and party politics and fight to save our infrastructure from future financial rape.
Yet even as I write, I know that won’t happen. So let the squawking go on. The long game of privatisation is afoot, and we are without the leadership to stop it.
This article is so prophetic I could cry.
Most of it would be accurate-if you were speaking about an equivalent set up in any other country in the world.
I believe that you are inaccurate about the likelihood of it being sold on to private venture capitalists in order for us to be fleeced over and over again.
The fact that a sweetheart deal has been done with thousands of obsolete local authority functionaries-as with the HSE when it was set up- means that there is so much inbuilt inefficiency in it's birth, that the water will be the most expensive in Europe per cubic metre.
Would you buy the HSE, for example- were the state to try and privatize health care in the morning and sell off every public hospital-for a song.?
Would you buy the VHI (state owned), for example, right now-or would you even take it as a present.?
Granted Irish water will have the unique privilege of being a monopoly supplier of a vital life giving commodity and in theory it can jack up prices ad infinitum.
In practice however our citizens will not stand for-nor pay for-water which costs perhaps twice the cost charged in other countries.
When some countries in South America privatized their water there was such public opposition that they reversed the policy.
The inbuilt inefficiencies which have been negotiated for the foreseeable future, by the local authorities unions, means that no big water company will look at at with a view to leaching big profits,unless that is- after huge public investment-the taxpayer also undertakes to bankroll the retirement of half the employees thereby reducing the the bloated payroll; and sells off the best parts, for a song.!
DANIEL MCCONNELL – 02 JUNE 2013
A catastrophic failure to tackle Ireland's "out of control" public spending means it is now a high-tax economy, it has been claimed.
Despite a budget deficit of €15bn last year, the public pay bill is up to 35 per cent higher than the OECD average and our welfare spend is 29 per cent higher than the average, leading economist and Trinity College senator Sean Barrett has said.
However, junior finance minister Brian Hayes yesterday rejected Dr Barrett's analysis as "overly simplistic" and said the Government had "rigidly stuck" to its promise not to increase income tax.
Dr Barrett rejected claims made earlier last week in a pan-European research paper that Ireland was a low-tax economy. He said it was because of the rampant overspend on public services that we had become a high-tax economy.
"The international comparisons on pay in that report show that Ireland has a high public pay bill," he said. "The OECD average for compensation of employees is 10.8 per cent of GNP and in Ireland it is 14.1 per cent."
According to the Department of Finance, in 2007 when the economy was still roaring ahead, €13.57bn was collected in income tax, which accounted for 29 per cent of all taxes.
ANALYSIS PAGE 19
Now, with the economy stagnating, 75,000 people emigrating each year and 294,600 people unemployed, the Government will take in €15.8bn (or 42 per cent of the total tax take), up from the trough of €11.2bn in 2010. That is a €4.6bn or 41 per cent swing in less than three years.
Dr Barrett said that seeking cuts of only €300m from the public sector when total spending amounts to more than €51bn was totally inadequate. He added that the problem "must be confronted".
"Current expenditure is €51.5bn, from which the Government is looking for €300m in savings," he said. "These savings targets could also have been met had we made across-the-board cuts of 0.58 per cent.
"The pressure must be kept on for proper economic assessment of spending. Public pay is part of the problem and must be confronted."
Despite budget adjustments of €28bn, Mr Hayes said overall spending has had to increase, given the amount of people on the dole and the huge number of additional medical cards in circulation. He said control of spending was "crucial".
Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy said: "If there is to be any reprieve in next year's budget, it should be for taxpayers. Taxes on employment remain too high, and the basic structure of social welfare continues to be a disincentive to work."
Fianna Fail finance spokesman Michael McGrath said: "Working families have been hammered and they can take no more. The cumulative impact of all the measures introduced since 2008 has put an enormous strain on families, communities and the spirit of the nation. A lot of poverty is under the radar."
Shane Ross – 26 January 2014
'There is the Fianna Fail charity and there is the Fine Gael charity," whispered one of my Public Accounts Committee colleagues to me at a private meeting last Wednesday evening.
We were discussing inviting Rehab, the so-called Fine Gael charity, to enlighten us about its litany of troubles. My colleague was interested in whether Rehab would get the CRC treatment from a Fine Gael-dominated PAC.
It was a good question. The PAC had united in its grilling of CRC. To his credit there had been no hesitation from FF chairman John McGuinness in calling in the board of the 'Fianna Fail' charity. The members had united, happily carving the CRC board into little pieces.
The appearance of three members of the CRC board was swiftly followed by their resignation and a special meeting to quiz the recently departed CRC chief executive, Brian Conlan. The PAC was resolute. They have now invited the entire board back again for further questions. Public money, and charity money was at stake. No delay was tolerated.
Last Wednesday it was Rehab's turn. A far bigger charity was in the frame. Public money and charity money was again at stake. Just like the CRC, the chief executive's salary was in the spotlight. Questions needed to be answered about the chief executive, Angela Kerins' remuneration. Was Rehab hiding its secrets behind opaque accounts? We needed to know. Rehab proved a different kettle of fish.
CRC was branded as the Fianna Fail charity because of the board's connections to both Charlie Haughey and Bertie Ahern. Chief executive Kiely was one of Bertie's mafia while chairman Jim Nugent was one of his "dig-out" pals. Director Vincent Brady was a cabinet colleague of Haughey. Fertile territory for Fine Gael diggers.
Rehab was linked to Fine Gael mainly because – until the death of Enda Marren last year – both he and current board member Frank Flannery were directors. Both Marren and Flannery were Fine Gael "national handlers" in the days of Garret FitzGerald, while Flannery remains a key figure in the Fine Gael hierarchy today. Its Fine Gael image survives despite the past associations of Angela Kerins with Fianna Fail. Indeed she once ran for the National Executive.
The heat has been directed at Kerins because she has refused to reveal her salary. But Rehab has wider questions to answer, specifically ones raised by Justice Minister Alan Shatter in the Dail last Tuesday night.
It was widely expected that the PAC would decide to call in Rehab last Wednesday. It didn't. It bottled it. Instead, it decided to seek reports – within a week – from the Department of Justice and the HSE about Rehab. Then – but not until then – would it apparently, be in a position to decide whether to invite Rehab into the bowels of Leinster House.
A week's breathing space is a long time in the speedy politics of the charity world. Rehab won a delay. In the meantime the top guns in FG moved to defuse the Rehab explosive.
Suddenly, last Thursday Angela's salary became a casus belli for Fine Gael ministers. First Leo Varadkar called for her to declare her salary. Next the Taoiseach – from faraway Davos – waded in demanding transparency. Eamon Gilmore repeated the mantra, followed by Richard Bruton. Angela's salary would have to be revealed. And now, of course, it will be.
Just after the four coalition cabinet ministers had demanded that she tell all, Rehab chairman Brian Kerr made an announcement. A special board meeting would be called in three-and-a-half weeks' time to consider the issue. It could have been done last Thursday. The message is clear. After the meeting the board will reveal Angela's salary. Problem solved, crisis over. Indeed the unwritten script could be that there is no longer a need to call Angela, or Frank Flannery, or anyone else from Rehab into the PAC.
It will be fascinating to see what the PAC decides when it receives those "reports" this coming week. Something deep in my gut suggests that they will now insist on waiting until the Rehab board meeting on February 17 before making a decision. There is a sceptical voice in my head suggesting that once Angela has come clean with a few added gestures towards accountability, the majority of the PAC will see no need for the PAC to interview the now "open and transparent" Rehab.
Surely the Coalition TDs are not scared of quizzing Frank Flannery, the Fine Gael guru with the Fianna Fail charm?
I know Frank Flannery pretty well. And I like him. He is affable and charming, but he is a permanent power house within Fine Gael. Frank picks FG candidates, has influence over their budgets, recommends running mates and divides constituencies into various no-go areas for Fine Gael candidates in general elections. I am a realist. I do not expect his TDs to savage him when he comes into the PAC, but nor do I expect them to delay the arrival of Frank of Rehab for a legitimate quizzing from others.
If the Fine Gael members of the PAC wish to declare an interest when he arrives that is perfectly fair. But Angela, Frank and others are in the public gaze and must account for their stewardship of public money and the use of charity collections.
So far there has been a deafening silence from Angela and Frank. Wisely, Rehab has sent the less political director, John McGuire, out to bat on Rehab's behalf.
But we need to hear from Angela and Frank. We need answers to questions not just about Angela's pay but also her pension arrangements. How big are the pension pots for top executives? Are they topped up by money from the collection boxes?
Rehab is believed to receive as much as €50m a year from the State. We are not even certain if this is the correct figure. We have a right to know. It produces consolidated accounts, making it almost impossible to detect the various sources of its funds. The success or otherwise of its subsidiaries across Europe is not visible from its 2012 annual report.
The issues raised by the Minister for Justice about the uncannily small profit margins from Rehab's gaming products should get a full airing. The suggestion made in the Dail that they are exploiting the matching funds provided by the State must be dissected. There are questions about how much money it receives directly from the State, how much from FAS, how much from the HSE and how much from the UK state. We need to see inter-company transfers, exactly as we did from the CRC. Rumours that senior staff were paid salary increases in 2013 must be rebutted, or confirmed and justified.
Flannery needs to be quizzed about a €66,000 payment to his company Laragh Consulting in 2012. Kerins should be asked a multitude of questions, not least how much she and Rehab have spent on travel in recent years. Her recent refusal to reveal her salary on RTE's Morning Ireland came from outer Saudi Arabia.
She seems to like it out there.
According to my sources in Rehab she is set to return to sunny Saudi in less than two weeks for a four-day confer- ence. So we could ask her about that too.
But do not bank on it. The blue blood of Fine Gael runs deep.
Shane Ross – 19 January 2014
WHY was Paul Kiely in such a big rush to the exit? Last March, the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) board heard that Paul Kiely was in an awful hurry to leave. He was determined to be gone by June 16. One board member insisted that this date was unrealistic, leaving far too little time to find a successor.
According to the board minutes, there was "universal agreement" on this point. They should not have worried. Of course it would normally take more than two and half months to pick a successor to a boss of Kiely's calibre. But Kiely was not for turning. He wanted to be shot of the place before mid-June. Was he planning to leave the CRC in the lurch?
Normally, a board would expect at least six months notice to fill a position at this level. Kiely was neither old nor sick. Yet, without explanation, he was retiring more than three years early. Perhaps he sensed the trouble coming down the line? Perhaps he feared that the top-ups controversy was about to break.? If that was the case, he would have been wise to target an available and sympathetic successor to ensure a rapid transition.
The board moved fast. It decided to limit the selection to "internal" candidates. That would short- circuit the process. For unknown reasons they went to the trouble of asking recruitment firm Amrop to advise them. They even set up a sub-committee to hasten the appointment. On the sub-committee sat a long-time CRC director, a man called Brian Conlan.
The board need not have worried. The gods rode to Kiely's rescue. Sometime after the recruitment process began, in a flash of divine inspiration, Conlan saw the blindingly obvious. He had found his vocation. He himself was the man for the job. So he applied. He was short-listed. He attended one interview, where fellow board members ushered him past the winning post. He was even allowed to attend the board meeting where his appointment was ratified.
Conlan took the gig on July 1. Kiely must have been mightily relieved. What had the board been worrying about? Why had they not recognised such outstanding talent sitting among their number?
Equally conveniently, Conlan had surprisingly jumped ship from his job as boss of the Mater Hospital barely three months before Kiely's decision to create a vacancy. What a wonderful coincidence that the vacancy arose less than three months after he had left the Mater. He denies that he was in an advantageous position.
Happily, the board felt that Conlan and the clinic were the perfect fit. Conlan sailed into the job.
Kiely had retired early. So had Conlan. It was the clinic's good fortune that Conlan was hanging around, bored and jobless, at the very moment that Kiely stepped down! Kiely handed over the CRC to Conlan in an almighty shambles.
The staff worked miracles in keeping the operations thriving, but the financial and governance structures were a disgrace. Nevertheless, his timing was impeccable. Its only subsidiary, CRC Medical, was in big trouble having lost money for four years. The CRC's expenditure was too high despite a government subsidy of €16m. It was dependent on the Friends and Supporters, the fundraising arm, for resources to support some utterly dubious items of expenditure. The 2012 accounts would reveal a €3m 'loan' from the fundraising arm to top up the pensions of senior people in the CRC.
By the time that little timebomb had come into the open Conlon would be in the saddle and Kiely would probably be on the high seas. No doubt, all interested parties hoped that the €3m "loan" would never attract unwelcome attention. When I discovered it in the accounts it looked innocent enough, accompanied by a note from auditors Ernst & Young that it was "not repayable in the short term". A second glance raised my curiosity. I knew it wasn't right and brought it to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Then the dam burst.
Within two weeks the entire board was forced to resign. Last week the HSE revealed that the former directors had taken no chances with the second, far better hidden, explosive device -- the board's decision to give Kiely a €740,000 golden handshake. This item was buried, described in the 2013 draft internal accounts as a "donation". On the same day in June as he received his final salary payment , Kiely was given a cheque for €473,336. Additionally, €268,689 was paid to pension professionals, Mercers, to ensure that Kiely received a pension, as if he had worked until November 2016.
The deal was artificial and shameless. No one was ever meant to know about it; but just to be sure, a legally binding agreement was drawn up to protect Kiely's sordid little secret. The method of enforcement was positively masonic. The sense of entitlement was stunning.
The board must have known that this concoction stank. It had a special stench with few known parallels in Irish business life. We can forgive tax dodgers, we are accustomed to padded expenses, we have great tolerance for greed. Even the bankers, in their worst moments, would not stoop so low as these guys. It was clear that the directors were ashamed, even frightened of their own actions.
They knew that the Irish public would never tolerate the big pillage: they were taking millions away from the needs of paralysed children to enrich the CRC's elite. So they resolved to keep the deal under wraps. For ever. What the disabled children did not know about they would never miss. Their wheelchairs could wait. Luckily for the directors, as it later turned out, the succession solution ensured that the secret would be in little danger of leaking as Conlan would be in pole position, unlikely to spill the beans on his former comrade Kiely or his fellow directors. Last Thursday, when Conlan appeared before us at the PAC, he was spilling no beans.
Instead he was in denial mood. He knew no secrets. He knew nothing of Kiely's €740,000 pay-off until Wednesday night.
He had not been at the crucial board meeting. He had read no minutes. He had asked no questions. His evidence was not just unconvincing. It was insulting.
The big rush, the coup that saw Conlan take over from Kiely, has not worked. The outcry demanding that Kiely returns the full €740,000 is getting louder every day. The public anger is palpable. This CRC catastrophe is a successor to FAS. The pattern is similar. The giant FAS budget was meant for the vulnerable jobless, but was partly spent on junkets to Florida. The CRC's funds, earmarked for the even more vulnerable disabled, were used to enrich the boss's pension. The episode reflects an ugly part of Ireland that still flourishes in powerful places. The culture of cabals, secrecy and entitlement survives .