David Hall: Pugnacious, hyperactive defender of underdog

Energy of Console’s interim chief executive contrasts with approach of State agencies

 

Shortly after a hitherto unknown storage unit belonging to Console was discovered last Monday, David Hall, the interim chief executive of the suicide charity, agreed to a court-imposed one-hour media blackout so he could break into the cache and find out what it actually contained.

“The longest hour of his life, I’d say,” quipped one associate of the hyperactive, pugnacious but, above all, media-hungry businessman. By all accounts, the Dubliner was worried that, having secured a court injunction to open the storage unit, there might be nothing more than a couple of old couches inside.

Hall was all over the newspapers again this week in his role of a “white knight” sent in to rescue a desperate situation, just as he has been for years now as the champion of those facing house repossessions over mortgage debt.

“David would have loved this: riding in to the rescue of the poor staff and users of the charity and getting lots of attention too,” says another person who has worked with Hall.

The week saw him shuttling back and forth from the High Court, a location with which he is well familiar over the course of a varied and sometimes disputatious career. The owner of a large fleet of private ambulances, Hall brought business acumen to a disastrous situation at Console where, as the entire country now knows, founder Paul Kelly appear to have run the charity for his personal benefit.

With forensic accountant Tom Murray, Hall quickly assessed the extent of the financial calamity and set the alarm bells ringing. His energy, tinged with impatience, contrasted with the approach of the State agencies that were politely sniffing around the mess. Beside him, the public servants looked like a lacklustre, slow- moving bunch of regulators.

Hall’s relentless media focus has served to keep the pot boiling on what was already an astonishing story, but this may ultimately be at the long-term cost of Console and the wider charity sector. The organisation’s brand is tarnished, probably irretrievably – it might have been anyway, before Hall’s arrival – and all charities are going to feel this scandal in their fundraising pockets.

Certainly, HSE management, which did next to nothing for six months after receiving the draft report on Console from its own auditors, must be wishing a more low- profile figure were at the helm. Its stewardship of the billions of euro given to the voluntary sector each year is likely to come under close scrutiny in the many postmortems to come.

Charity sector

Hall had no previous link to Console but he has been active in the charity sector for years. He set up the Irish branch of the Make a Wish Foundation and served as chairman of the Marie Keating Foundation for a decade, but he is no longer involved with either organisation.

His bread and butter is Lifeline Ambulance Service, which runs the largest fleet of private ambulances in the State. The company’s most recently filed accounts in May show it incurred a loss of €436,412 in the year to the end of June 2014.

However, they also state that the business “regained profitability” in the following financial year. Sources suggest that it made a profit of about €100,000 last year.

Hall has provided a guarantee to the value of €377,000 for the company’s banking facilities with the accounts, stating that it had secured “new finance facilities” this year to acquire 10 ambulances.

The accounts also show that Hall and his wife, Susan Wiseman Hall, shared directors’ remuneration and “other benefits” of €217,817 in 2014. The company operates from a premises owned by Hall, paying him rent that year of €115,267.

Hall, originally from Blanchardstown, studied science at Maynooth and spent a year working as vice-president in the students’ union. He trained in Britain as a paramedic and set up Lifeline in 1999, using money borrowed from his parents.

The business prospered for many years but Hall became embroiled in lengthy litigation with the HSE over the way it allocated business to private ambulance operators. This litigation continues. He was also a director of a children’s ambulance charity, Bumbleance, but left as part of a bitter dispute with other board members.

Debt issue

He is best known for his campaigning on the debt issue. In 2010, he co-founded the mortgage advice organisation New Beginning with barristers Vincent Martin – a friend from his Maynooth days – and Ross Maguire.

Help was provided for hundreds of homeowners battling repossession, but Hall once again had an acrimonious falling out. He left the organisation in 2012. There were differences over the government’s new insolvency legislation, plans to charge for services and his partners’ aversion to the constant media coverage Hall generated.

Hall set up the Irish Mortgage Holders Association (IMHO), which has allowed him continue to act as the “home-loan hero”. From a standing start, it has helped about 9,200 people in mortgage arrears to conclude an arrangement to deal with their debt problems.

Some of these have required people to file for bankruptcy, with the association handling about 40 per cent of bankruptcy cases in the past four years, all of them free of charge.

Hall is a skilled communicator, in the same mould as Michael O’Leary. His blunt style and an ability to cut through the waffle might have ruffled feathers in the banking sector but it also struck a chord with the many thousands of people who were struggling with mortgage arrears.

He is also clearly a skilled negotiator, having persuaded both AIB and KBC Bank Ireland to set up schemes that would involve the IMHO acting as go-between with their mortgage arrears customers.

“They recognised that people trusted the IMHO and didn’t trust them to give them the best advice on their options,” said one financial source. “They were under political pressure to break the logjam on arrears and decided the IMHO might be able to help them persuade customers to engage.”

AIB (including its EBS and Haven brands) pays more than €800,000 a year to the association for its services, with KBC providing about €110,000 a year. This has enabled the association to hire a staff of 14 to administer the schemes. It has since become a model copied by the other Irish banks.

Hall is believed to be negotiating with AIB to expand its scheme to incorporate other personal debts, not just mortgages.

Loudhailer diplomacy

Not that everyone is a fan of his loudhailer diplomacy, notably Bank of Ireland, which has taken the toughest line on mortgage debt and is paddling its own canoe, and Permanent TSB, which was the subject of fierce criticism from the association chief last year following the publication of its mortgage redress scheme.

Hall had had many other business interests, including property, directorship of a casino and a representative role for the gaming sector.

He campaigned for former Fianna Fáil minister Brian Lenihan but left the party after the financial crisis. One of his most high-profile cases was taken against the legality of the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note deal signed by Lenihan. He lost but managed to get his legal bill cut by appealing it to the taxing master.

Not unexpectedly, politics came calling and he stood as an Independent in the Dublin West byelection in May 2014. Hall, who is married with twin daughters, lives in Castleknock, in the heart of the constituency.

His campaign attracted a diverse range of support; among those who canvassed for him were Róisín Shortall, Shane Ross, Lucinda Creighton and Eamon Dunphy.

With 3,800 first preferences, he performed creditably, although not well enough to encourage him to stand in the general election, despite talk of running for the Social Democrats.

Self-made man

Friends speak with admiration of his work ethic and energy and his charitable instincts, as well as his success as a self-made man. Detractors, and there are many after the numerous spats that have marked his career, claim his ego gets in the way of the issues at hand.

“A positive is that he wants to roll up in his ambulance and rescue you,” one former colleague remarks. “The negative is that if you show up in a bigger ambulance, you become the enemy.”

Across the board, however, there is a general affection for the “small bald man”, as he described himself this week outside the Four Courts, taking on the powers that be. “If I was in a tight spot, I’d want David Hall fighting my corner,” one journalist sums up. Hall’s involvement with Console came out of the blue, when Eames Solicitors, brought in by the charity to deal with the HSE audit process, asked him to review its finances following the departure of Paul Kelly.

Hall, who is not taking a salary for his work, is unlikely to stay on in the long- term, but if he can achieve his stated aim of “righting the ship” at Console he will have done the State some service.