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A unique cabal of rogues, or just the Irish way?

Posted on: January 19th, 2014

THIS Sunday the HSE is smelling of roses. That takes some doing. It could have searched for donkeys years for a cabal of characters to make it look like a group of heroes. Last Thursday it found them. The disgraced, departed directors of the Central Remedial Clinic made Ireland’s health dinosaur resemble an unsung pussy cat.

On Wednesday evening the battered HSE released a letter to members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) with the most staggering revelation to date. Their man, now installed in charge of the CRC, had been doing a bit of digging. He had discovered a deeply buried secret. The departed chief executive, Paul Kiely, had received an extra €740,000 to ease his way into retirement. The payment was supposed to be a secret. Board members, summoned to a special meeting in March, were obliged to take it to their graves. God help them if the public ever found out that the boss was riding off into the sunset with his saddle bags full of charity money.

Kiely’s short-lived successor, Brian Conlan, seemed to take the “legally binding” confidentiality agreement, pledging eternal secrecy about Kiely’s monstrous payout, pretty seriously. He told the PAC that he had not known anything about the huge golden handshake until last Wednesday night. Just like the rest of us, he was “shocked”. Ahem.

Conlan had stumbled through the trapdoor set by the HSE the previous night. By releasing the bombshell the night before Conlan’s appearance at the PAC, they guaranteed that he would be grilled on the subject the next morning.

Conlan seemed hopelessly unprepared. He pleaded that he had missed the special board meeting called to reward Kiely. Which was not in dispute. More extraordinary was his plea that he had not digested the accompanying board papers nor had he read the minutes of the board meeting, ‘special’ as it was.

In the intervening nine months he had never received as much as a phone call from fellow directors to tell him that Paul had been given another €740,000 in recognition of his great service to the clinic and the nation. He was unable to enlighten us about how a €740,000 payment (half the charity’s fundraising arm’s annual income) could be treated in the accounts. Fortunately for Conlan, he was in Spain at the time of the top-secret pension award.

Indeed, Brian Conlan has a happy habit of being away when bad news breaks. He was on honeymoon in the US when the top-up scandal hit the headlines in December. On his return he promptly resigned as chief executive and refused to appear before the PAC, pleading stress. Under threat of compulsion he relented. So he turned up on Thursday.

Today he must wish he had stuck to his original defiant stance.

The Conlan performance visibly shook battle-hardened politicians on the PAC. Like Manuel in Fawlty Towers, whether director or chief executive, he knew nothing. He admitted to attending only about three board meetings a year. He maintained that he did not understand the interaction between CRC itself and its sickly sister company, CRC Medical Devices. Nor had he ever bothered to find out.

He could not comment on the possibility of a glaring conflict of interest between the two even though the CRC was recommending to the HSE that many of its wheelchairs should be bought from CRC Medical Devices. Yet, when he, somehow, won the chief executive’s job, one of the first actions he took was to sell the loss-making company. It may have been the right decision, but it was certainly not an informed one, if he really did not know how both companies interacted.

Nor apparently had Conlan ever asked about travel expenses in all his eight years of board meetings of the CRC. At 11.30am on Thursday morning he could not remember ever travelling abroad in his time as director of CRC. At 1.45 — after I had jogged his memory with evidence received from an impeccable source — he admitted that he had been to Dusseldorf courtesy of the Clinic in 2006. Ahem.

A pity he never asked questions about how much travel was going on under the noses of board members. Perhaps it was all bona fide stuff, but the board should know about it. At least one senior manager regularly travelled to international seating conferences. He was often accompanied by other senior staff. Destinations included Buenos Aires, Nashville, Vancouver, New Delhi and guess where — Orlando?

Orlando, the land of FAS, was a favourite location for these seating conferences. We will probably never know whether the top brass of the CRC bumped into FAS junketeer Rody Molloy out there, but in 2009 at least five staff from the Clinic hit the Florida hot spot.

Conlan, the chief executive, professed to know a little more about the CRC-operated ‘European Seating Symposium’ as he had formally opened it last year. He seemed to believe it held all its meetings in Dublin. He knew nothing of its “study days” in Europe and pleaded total ignorance when I read him out a newsletter to delegates from top CRC staff member Simon Hall, telling them of the plans to hold “study days in Slovenia, Norway, Spain, Portugal, France, Malta etc”.

Brian Conlan, CRC director, knew nothing. He attended few board meetings and rarely seems to have asked any relevant questions when he did turn up. Yet in his opening statement he insisted that he was an “internal” candidate for Kiely’s job and that “having served on the board of the CRC for eight years I felt very qualified to apply.” “Insider” maybe. “Internal” hardly, judging by his own protestations of ignorance about the day-to-day carry-on at the CRC. Several unsuccessful internal candidates out at the CRC were disillusioned at the shenanigans.

They have good reason. Conlan’s success in landing the boss’s job was mind-boggling. Rarely does a non-executive director find himself thrust into the driving seat. Occasionally the chairman of a troubled company takes on the chief executive’s job, but the parachute used by Conlan into the seat that offered Kiely such undeserved riches, must be unique.

His opening statement, insisting that he was not “responsible for my own appointment”, rang hollow when it later emerged that he had actually been involved in the process to pick a successor to Kiely. The minutes of the specially called board meeting to reward Kiely — which Conlan missed — were released during the PAC meeting. Conlan was caught in a deadly ambush. They revealed that he had joined CRC chairman and Merc recruitment to “discuss the available options” for Kiely’s successor. In the same board minutes it was recorded that a recruitment sub-committee would be formed. Chairman Jim Nugent and Brian Conlan were nominated.

Conlan insists that he withdrew from the recruitment process once he developed an interest in the job.

Brian Conlan, chairman Jim Nugent, fallen chief executive Paul Kiely and other directors of the CRC have made their successors in the HSE look like guardian angels. The real mystery is why Conlan wanted the job. Perhaps he is a misunderstood philanthropist? Perhaps he was motivated by a strong desire to rescue the CRC from the ghosts of its past? Perhaps he merely wanted to improve the health of the clients ? Perhaps he wanted to end the tenure of the Fianna Fail clique that dominated the board?

Perhaps he saw the excesses of the last regime and was fired by a reforming zeal that he hid so well on Thursday morning?

And the moon is a balloon . . .