HSE audit criticises ‘unsatisfactory’ controls at Pieta House

An internal Health Service Executive (HSE) audit into suicide prevention charity Pieta House criticised a number of governance shortcomings, including the circumstances around a pay increase for a former chief executive.

The audit found controls and oversight at the charity, which received €5 million in HSE funding over the past two years, were “unsatisfactory”, and made more than 50 recommendations for improvement.

A draft audit report was first completed in 2018, which was followed by significant back and forth between Pieta House and the audit team, with the final report signed off in February 2021.

The audit noted one staff member was responsible for collecting donations, as well as drawing up receipts and depositing the funds in the charity’s bank account, which it said “could lead to irregularities going unnoticed”.

The audit criticised a lack of documentation around the authorisation of staff salary increases, and an increase in the chief executive’s pay in 2017.

The report said a general pay increase of 5 per cent had been given to staff, while the chief executive received a 12 per cent increase.

Pieta House said the chief executive’s raise had been discussed at a board meeting, and “written notification had been issued by the chair to the director of HR”, advising the board had approved it. However, the audit report said “the minutes of the board meeting made no reference to this matter”.

It said there was “no remuneration policy or a policy on how senior management salaries were reviewed and increases approved”.

The report recommended decisions on pay increases “should be formally approved by the board and documented in the minutes”. Pieta House rejected the finding, stating it was “incorrect, unfair, and should be removed”.

In response the HSE team noted the charity “did not provide evidence to internal audit to counter the audit findings”.

The audit said the charity had 15 bank accounts, which could lead to “lack of control and non-identification of errors and misappropriation”.

The founder of the charity, former senator Joan Freeman, had been appointed to an ambassador role in 2015, reporting directly to the charity’s board.

The audit said “Pieta House management were not fully informed about the ambassador’s activities”, and copies of her contract and job description were not on her staff personnel file.

The report also raised concerns with invoices from therapists contracted by Pieta House to provide counselling sessions. Auditors reviewed invoices from 22 therapists and said some had been paid without evidence of approval. In four cases there were “discrepancies” between appointment records and invoices.

The audit also found Garda vetting had not been renewed for several years for some staff, and that “no reasons were provided by Pieta House for not renewing these Garda clearances”.

In another case, a counsellor was appointed without Garda clearance. The report found when the counsellor’s Garda vetting was completed “there was a record which warranted the employee being interviewed by the HR manager”.

The report said while the charity recorded 38 foreign trips between 2014 and 2017, it had no policy governing foreign travel. Twenty-two of the overseas trips were listed as connected to the charity’s Darkness into Light fundraiser.

The report said the charity did not provide auditors with evidence of “prior approval of foreign travel,” or “full financial and travel records”.

Pieta House said it had taken “many positive measures” to address the audit’s findings, and had invested significant resources into improving governance.

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