Flannery may have gone but the questions remain
Will Frank Flannery appear before the PAC and give answers on Rehab?
Frank Flannery’s exit from Fine Gael and Rehab was abrupt. After decades in the top echelon of both organisations, his resignation last evening came only two days after The Irish Times disclosed that he had received thousands of euro from Rehab to lobby the Government.
The manoeuvre smacks of damage limitation on all sides. With Flannery at the centre of a growing political storm over his personal and business dealings with Rehab, his proximity to Taoiseach Enda Kenny was simply too much to bear. But numerous uncomfortable questions remain unanswered, not least the rather pertinent lack of clarity over his willingness to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
That will be played out in coming days, with no sign on Flannery’s part that will indeed attend the most important committee in the parliament dominated by the party he served for than 40 years.
He might never have imagined that it would all come to an end like this but now it has. Although Minister for Finance Michael Noonan claimed yesterday that the affair risked straying into Alice in Wonderland territory with a “verdict first and the trial after”, the reality was that the point of no return had already been reached.
A great deal more telling were remarks by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, in which he described meeting Flannery around Government Buildings early on a Tuesday morning before the weekly meeting of the Cabinet.
Quinn said Flannery did not lobby him on such occasions but had raised matters of concern to Rehab. This presented a most striking image of Flannery’s extraordinary access to power, for which he was very well paid by a group with charity status which receives more than €80 million from the State each year.
Note that Flannery, who retired as Rehab chief in 2006, returned to its board as a director in 2011. He was paid €11,000 for consultancy work that year (including VAT) and €79,860 in 2012. The latter was the year in which the Government moved to phase out over three years the charity lottery support scheme from which Rehab had received tens of millions.
The obvious point must be made that Flannery’s lobbying was not sufficient to block the decision to scrap the scheme. But was he instrumental in the decision not to cancel it immediately so as to give groups like Rehab time to adjust? We simply don’t know.
What we do know is that is that Minister for Justice Alan Shatter believed expenditure under the scheme was unjustifiable.
The intertwining of Flannery’s political role at the very top of Fine Gael and his paid behind-the-scenes advocacy for Rehab was very clearly at odds with the Government’s express commitment to a “new” kind of politics.
If this was Fianna Fáil in the bad old days, there would be an immediate and terrible onslaught from Fine Gael and Labour and they would take some pleasure in it too. All the more so in a scenario in which serious questions from the PAC remained outstanding.
The committee wanted Flannery to appear before it two weeks ago but he was not there when his successor as Rehab chief, Angela Kerins, attended for more than seven hours. It transpired that Flannery was in Leinster House that very day. Two days later, he was at the Fine Gael Ardfheis. Yet still we do not know whether he will oblige when the PAC calls Rehab back. The question inevitably arises as to why.
PAC chairman John McGuinness expressed his willingness last night to seek to compel Flannery to attend if he declines its latest invitation.
The committee’s questions centred first on the value of Flannery’s pension. Kerins didn’t have the information and a reply on this issue and others is awaited from Rehab. This is linked to pay and bonuses at Rehab, questions the group has been very slow to answer. The group’s board waited almost a month to meet to disclose Kerins’ €240,000 salary and she herself has told the PAC that she can’t remember her last bonus payment.
Then there is the matter of Flannery’s co-ownership with Kerins’ husband and brother of a company that struck a deal in 2010 with Rehab to supply components to it for a coffin enterprise in Kilkenny.
The arrangement between Rehab and Complete Eco Solutions went nowhere but Kerins herself has acknowledged her own discomfort at family business links of this nature.
We have not heard from Flannery, who was with Rehab for three decades, as to whether he had any reservations about the deal, on which Complete Eco Solutions is said to have lost money.
The contract with Rehab was struck weeks after the company was registered. The business appears to have petered out by the time Flannery returned to the Rehab board in 2011 but questions remain as to the nature and scope of the initiative.
On top of all this are questions now about Flannery’s lobbying of the Government for Rehab, which has two legal actions ongoing against the State in relation to its own lotteries business.
This affair erupted last January when Kerins declined to disclose her salary in a radio interview. She was in the Gulf at the time on a trade mission with the Taoiseach. Mr Kenny departs tomorrow for his annual St Patrick’s Day visit to the US, yet Rehab remains in the frame.
Flannery’s departure is but one act in the drama.