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Shane Ross: Don’t bank on ‘Fine Gael charity’ coming clean

Posted on: January 26th, 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.