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Charity regulator 'should have been in Console's offices long ago'

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald said the charity regulator is seeking assurances robust governance is in place.

Image: Mark Stedman

OPPOSITION PARTIES HAVE voiced criticisms against the Charities Regulatory Authority in relation to the latest scandal at Console.

Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil both spoke in the Dáil today about how the office should have taken a more proactive role to ensure good governance and financial practices at the suicide charity.

However, the Tánaiste defended the regulator, claiming he has taken an active role since the situation unfolded last week.

Frances Fitzgerald made clear that the Charities Regulatory Authority is seeking formal written undertakings from Console trustees that certain measures are being taken to ensure there is robust governance within the charity and that it is complying with the Charities Act.

Speaking in the Dáil chamber this afternoon, she confirmed the authority’s chief executive John Farrelly has been taking an active role in the situation and is in ongoing contact with the charity’s trustees.

The regulator is seeking a report from the trustees in relation to allegations of financial impropriety which surfaced following a report last week.

RTÉ Investigates, Broken Trust, revealed irregularities in the charity’s finances in relation to cash receipting, expense claims and financial accounts.

The programme showed that, when applying for state grants and tax exemptions, the charity altered accounts to omit or edit references to directors’ pay and other benefits.

RTÉ also reported that the charity’s directors, from 2010 to early 2014, were made up of founder Paul Kelly, his wife Patricia, a close family relative and, briefly, another immediate relative.

Under Revenue Commission rules, there should be “a minimum of three Officers, Trustees or Directors, who are not related and (are) independent of each other”.

Paul Kelly resigned as chief executive of the Console suicide charity last week following the programme.

Full report on allegations made

In light of the recent revelations, the regulator wants information furnished in relation to the management of the property and the finances of the charity. The Tánaiste said the financial impropriety allegations will be investigated and a full report issued to authority.

The regulator is also seeking, if required, to apply its powers to assign new trustees to the charity to assist the current board in its work.

It is clear, therefore, that the regulator is playing an active role. He has also sought reports from An Garda Síochána and is working with the force. He has also asked RTE for any assistance it can give.

Fitzgerald said there has been a robust response to the allegations against Console and its CEO Paul Kelly. She also said it is essential that confidence is maintained in the NGO and charities sectors.

The gardaí may have a separate role if there are other allegations, she added. 

The Tánaiste also pointed out that the charities regulator has no role in investigating fraud nor any remit to carry out that type of investigation.

However, in respect to the behaviour of charities, once a complaint is made to the authority, it will carry out an investigation, she said.

It is within the regulator’s remit to involve other bodies, such as the gardaí or the Office of the Director Enforcement.

The Irish Times reported today that the Office of the Director Enforcement has asked for a copy of the damning HSE audit which was the focus of RTE’s investigation.

Taxpayers’ money 

Console has received €2.5 million from the HSE in recent years to help it provide counselling services.

Fianna Fáil’s Seán Fleming said almost half of its funding comes directly from taxpayers through State organisations, while the balance is raised through fundraising and donations from the general public.

In addition, he said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade allocated €130,000 to Console to enable it to support Irish emigrants in the UK.

Fleming was critical of the regulator, stating he should have had a proactive role.

He should not wait for the damage to be done before he comes in to do something. He has powers and he should have been in Console’s offices long before now dealing with these issues before they came to light publicly.

“This scandal has the potential to damage Console’s reputation and good work and every effort must be taken to ensure that does not happen. It is crucial that these investigations be concluded speedily in order that Console and its staff can get on with their good work.”

Fresh reports

Citing ‘informed sources’, the Irish Times also reported today that Paul Kelly – who resigned from Console last Thursday – told staff in the organisation that he remains at the helm and that business would continue as usual.

TheJournal.ie contacted Console’s offices in relation to these new reports but was told by a spokesperson that the charity would not be making a comment at this time.

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