Transactions between Bóthar and charity in England to be scrutinised

Dealings between Limerick’s Bóthar and UK’s Msaada raise significant concerns

Significant financial transfers between the Bóthar charity in Limerick and a similar charity set up by one of its founders in England are to be examined by the UK Charities Commission.

The English charity, Msaada, was set up and run by former Limerick journalist Billy Kelly, a founder member of Bóthar who subsequently moved to England.

Msaada, which Kelly operated out of his home in Gillingham, was involved in substantial financial transactions over the years about which the chairman of Bóthar, Harry Lawlor, has now expressed significant concerns.

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission in the UK said it was aware of the concerns that had been raised by Lawlor.

“We are currently assessing information in relation to this matter to determine whether there is a role for the commission. We cannot comment further at this stage.”

Kelly could not be contacted and is understood to be in hospital receiving medical care. Msaada, which was focused on delivering aid to Rwanda, ceased operations late last year and is no longer operating as a charity.

In an affidavit presented to the High Court, Lawlor said Bóthar paid Msaada for services in Africa that Msaada provided to the Irish charity.

However, a “puzzling aspect of the financial relationship between the two entities had more recently come to light”, he said.

“It has emerged that Msaada has transferred approximately €1,000,000 to Bóthar, over several years,” Lawlor said. “I can think of no reason why Msaada should pay any sum to Bóthar.”

Lawlor said Bóthar transferred funds to bank accounts Msaada had in Rwanda, in payment for services delivered by Msaada.

The payments by the Irish charity to Msaada “appear quite legitimate” but what he found “more difficult to understand” were transfers from the Irish charity to an account with NatWest in Shaftsbury, Dorset, “for the benefit of Msaada, it seems”.

These transactions, he said, were never raised by Bóthar’s auditors, Grant Thornton, at any stage over the past decade.

Sums ‘refunded’

He could not think of a good reason why money might be coming from Msaada to Bóthar, “or why those sums would then by refunded to Msaada”.

Lawlor and Kelly are among four men who set up the well-known Limerick charity in 1991.

A person who did not wish to be identified said Kelly was currently receiving hospital care in England and would not be available to comment.

Lawlor's affidavit to the High Court was part of a successful application on behalf of Bóthar to freeze the assets of David Moloney, who was the chief executive of Bóthar up to February of this year, when he resigned.

The courts have ordered that Moloney not reduce his assets below €460,000, pending an action his former employer is taking against him alleging the misappropriation of funds.

Kelly moved to England in and around 2003 and has been described as the founder and operator of Msaada.

It, like Bóthar, became involved in the provision of farm animals to poor families in rural Africa, but also appears to have branched out to other activities.

In a note from 2014 on the Bóthar website, it states that since 2006 the Limerick charity had been airlifting animals into Rwanda twice a year with the aid of “project partner Msaada”, and that in June 2014 Msaada recorded the details of 31 dairy heifers that had been airlifted into the African country the previous March.

The successful application for the freezing order against Moloney was made on ex-parte basis, meaning he was not in court to respond to the charges that were made against him.

Specific payments

However, the court was told that Moloney, of Clino, Newport, Co Tipperary, had, through his lawyers, denied any wrongdoing.

Lawlor’s application was based on a number of allegations around specific amounts, including payments of £52,200 and £58,000 in May 2018 and May 2019 to an English company called Agriculture Innovation Consultancy Limited (AICL).

AICL was incorporated in April 2018 and struck off the UK Companies Register in December 2019. It filed one set of financial accounts, Lawlor said, and these stated that it had never traded.

However, a check on Companies House records in the UK by The Irish Times shows that a successful application was made in March of this year in the county court in London to have AICL restored to the register.

The initial application for the restoration was dated December 21st, 2020, and the restoration of the company to the register was recorded on April 14th, a week after the swearing of Lawlor’s affidavit.

On that same date that the notice of restoration was registered, a new set of unaudited accounts were filed for AICL for the year to April 30th, 2020.

Although the AICL accounts filed in 2019 stated that the company had been dormant that year, the more recent accounts state that the company was in fact active.

Turnover was £52,200 in 2019, the new accounts state. Turnover in 2020 was £58,000, according to the same accounts.

These are the same amounts that were cited in Lawlor’s affidavit, and about which Lawlor told the court the charity had concerns.

The recent accounts detail expenditure on subcontracted staff, and other lesser charges, that essentially match the company’s income.

Sausage-making venture

Bóthar has a copy of a draft invoice sent by Kelly to Moloney in respect of AICL, Lawlor told the High Court.

It also has an email from 2018 containing suggestions that grants might be offered, through AICL, for projects including a sausage-making venture in Rwanda, with an estimated cost for the first year of £52,200.

Last year, Bóthar appointed financial services firm Smith & Williamson to investigate the charity’s finances.

On March 20th, 2020, by which time the Smith & Williamson inquiry was under way, Kelly wrote to Moloney and said he had been thinking about the “inquisition and the dangers that could lie ahead”.

He suggested it might be wise to “remove as much information as possible from the documentation being given to the investigators”.

He referred to reports about the proposed project in Rwanda that gave details of AICL and suggested Moloney should make sure to delete the copies of the report that had the AICL details on them.

“Once this email is sent,” he, according to court proceedings, wrote, “I will be deleting it. I suggest that once you have downloaded the files, that you do the same.”

Kelly told a Bóthar employee in January of this year that he, Kelly, had been made redundant by Msaada, as the trustees had wound up the charity, according to Lawlor’s affidavit. The Msaada webpage is no longer active.

The Charities Regulator in Ireland has appointed an inspector to investigate Bóthar, and the Garda is also involved.

The charity raised €6 million, mostly by way of public donations, in 2018, according to its latest audited accounts. It is no longer fundraising. The case against Moloney is due back up for mention on Tuesday in the High Court.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent