Governance at hepatitis C group Positive Action ‘seriously flawed’

‘Considerable extravagance’ and resistance to accountability, says HSE audit report

Spending controls at  hepatitis C support group Positive Action were non-existent, an internal HSE audit report said. File photograph: iStockPhoto/Getty Images

Spending controls at hepatitis C support group Positive Action were non-existent, an internal HSE audit report said. File photograph: iStockPhoto/Getty Images

 

Spending controls at the hepatitis C support group, Positive Action, were non-existent and governance was seriously flawed, according to a HSE internal audit report.

There was no consideration by the directors of Positive Action of value for public money as well as “considerable extravagance” and resistance by directors to being accountable, the report says.

“In internal audit’s opinion, the executive committee/directors failed to put in place an appropriate system of internal control to ensure they met their fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities.”

Lavish spending

Details of lavish spending at the charity were first revealed in 2012 in The Irish Times, which reported the contents of the audit report two years later.

However, the release of the report has been delayed until now because of an ongoing Garda investigation into the charity, which is now complete. It was made available by the HSE in response to a freedom of information request.

Last November, Bernadette Warnock (63), a former director of the charity, was jailed for two years for theft and fraud after Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard she stole more than €116,000 from Positive Action.

Positive Action was an organisation where control over the expenditure of public funds was non-existent and one director was allowed by others to have significant control over finances, according to the auditors.

The report, which covers the period 2009 to 2013, says HSE funding was not used economically, efficiently, effectively or appropriately by the directors of Positive Action.

Overseas trips

Almost half of public funds was spent on overseas trips, weekends away, dining, directors’ expenses and complementary or beauty therapies. Another third went on legal costs.

The spending included €325,000 on weekends away in Ireland, €104,000 on overseas trips, and €87,000 on “restaurants, take-outs, groceries”.

One director spent €34,000 on taxis using her spouse’s taxi firm and other directors incurred €36,000 in taxi costs.

The spending also included €100,000 on complementary therapies, such as angel healing, ear candling, various forms of massage and beauty treatments such as facials, manicures and pedicures. “The impression created was that money was no object and extravagant expenditure was normal.”

The report provides a forensic level of details about spending at international conferences, from $66 for a filet mignon and $232 for four lobster meals to “excessive tips” of at least $1,700 and $235 spent on laptop cases.

Alcohol costs incurred while attending an international liver conference came to $795 and childcare and dogminding costs were covered in some instances.

‘Fraught’ relationship

The report says proper financial records were not maintained, information was missing from the accounting system and Positive Action had a “fraught” relationship with the HSE.

Legal costs amounted to €777,000 - the report says legal advice was obtained quite frequently about issues that in other organisation would not merit the use of legal advisers.

It describes the seeking of legal advice on whether or not to co-operate with internal audit as “an unnecessary expenditure and a misuse of public funds”.

Between, 2005 and 2013, Positive Action received €4.7 million in funding from the HSE.

The group was one of several set up in the 1990s to provide supports for women who became infected with hepatitis C after receiving infected blood products supplied by the State.