Committee dances around the ballad of Jim and Bertie

Jim Nugent met Bertie Ahern in 1970 through the Federated Workers Union of Ireland. Jim was a negotiator with the union, recruited straight from university for the job. Bertie was a junior accounts clerk with the Dublin District Milk Board. They became friends through the branch committee.

“I made some friendships through the unions that have lasted throughout my political career” Bertie would later say in his autobiography.

Jim Nugent was one of them, and he would go on to tell the Mahon Tribunal that their friendship was the reason he gladly agreed to contribute £2,500 in cash to the infamous Bertie Ahern dig-out fund.

In its findings, the tribunal did not accept that story about the dig-outs.

In the meantime, from those early days over forty years ago, both men – fellow Fianna Fail members - went on to greater things. By the time of the alleged dig-out contribution, Bertie was Minister for Finance and went on to become a long-serving Taoiseach.

Nugent's star rose too. He was appointed Chairman of CERT, the tourism industry training body and was also appointed to the Board of the Central Bank.

What has this got to do with the Central Remedial Clinic in Clontarf, where its former CEO, Paul Kiely, once enjoyed a salary tipping towards a quarter of million euro thanks to a generous top-up from the organisation's charity fund.

Well, nothing, as far as the witnesses from the CRC were concerned yesterday when they appeared before the Dail's Public Accounts Committee.

They were asked to appear following revelations that the organisation used money collected for charitable purposes to “top-up” the salaries of executives.

It took all morning and well into the afternoon session for Shane Ross to ask the question a lot of people had been thinking about: is it purely coincidence that so many of the directors and people who have held positions of power in the CRC have close associations with the former taoiseach?

His query made people sit up and take notice.

He was thinking of the late Tony Kett and former Chairman, Des Peelo, Vincent Brady, who was a cabinet colleague of Ahern's back in the day and of yesterday's witnesses Paul Kiely and current CRC chairman Jim Nugent "who both received preferment under Mr Ahern's government."

But Daniel Martin, another director of the CRC, stressed that he has no politicial affiliation whatsoever and had seen no "scintilla" of evidence that there was no political influence in the running of the organisation.

Nugent pointed out that there are a large number of people on the board and he wouldn’t know what their politician affiliations are.

”I don’t get the purposes of the analysis.”

Ross explained there could be a concerns that “with loyalties to a political party you may possibly be in danger, or be vulnerable to the accusation that you give each other preferment or preferential treatment.”

This was robustly dismissed by the Nugent and Kiely, the former CEO who has resigned from the board.

” I think it’s about time we stopped playing around with words like ‘top-up’” protested Nugent, the chairman of the board. “It’s an employment contract.”

Contracts that cannot be broken, apparently.

So when the HSE insisted that wages be significantly reduced, the charity donations were tapped to bring salaries up to contracted levels.

There may have been cuts in services to the people who needed them, but the top brass were looked after.

”This is a game of musical chairs for very generously remunerated backsides” remarked Labour’s Ged Nash.

It’s “a complex world,” said Jim Nugent, as any parent of a disabled child would agree.

Friends and Supporters of the CRC were drawn upon to solve the complexities of pay and pensions.

Friends with benefits, as it turned out, for the handsomely paid executives in the organisation.

It was indeed an unfortunate co-incidence that a number of its top people now, and in the past, appeared to have such close links to Fianna Fail and Bertie Ahern.

But co-incidence is all it is.

When Paul Kiely resigned his position, he got a payoff of €200,000.

The Friends and Suporters of the CRC – the raffle-ticket sellers and the table quizzers and the collection box rattlers – stumped up the money, as it turned out.

But nothing wrong with that in their world, argued the witnesses yesterday.

”I thought Mr Kiely was a magnificent Chief Executive Officer” said Daniel Martin.

And Mr. Kiely left with a magnificent pension to go with his tasty lump-sum when he departed the organisation which is 80% funded by the taxpayer.

”The board never sanctioned any top-up. It sanctioned salaries” said Kiely.

Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald said the whole set-up sounded like “a boy’s club.”

Amid calls for the board to resign, Fine Gael's John Deasy turned his fire on the HSE. "It seems to me the HSE knew very well what was happening" and those deputies calling for resignations "should look at the HSE and the people who were policing it as well."

If the top-up policy wasn't bad enough, yesterday's meeting ended on a note of high drama when it was revealed that the CRC has been paying vast amounts of money to the Mater Hospital to administer a useless "phantom" pension fund for them.

This stems from a legal agreement going back over 30 years.

€666,000 last year – the amount of money Health Minister James Reilly said he needed to bail out his threadbare budget.

”Lots of employees of the Mater end up in the CRC” mused Shane Ross. The Mater Hospital is where Bertie Ahern worked in accounts until the 1980s. He made a lot of pals there.

Another unfortunate co-incidence.

”Bonkers” exclaimed Ross. “Absolute madness…a crazy arrangement.”

The PAC wants to hear more and will meet next week to investigate this bizarre arrangement.

”I’m sure that all the people watching this consider it to be an absolute farce” said PAC Chairman, John McGuinness.

He’s not wrong there.