THE woman behind a major local charity initiative which collapsed last week when the Limerick Leader revealed details of fraudulent activity by her also tricked dozens of people who enrolled on a bogus healthcare course.
It is believed that several are currently working in local nursing homes, unaware that their qualification is not valid.
Denyse O’Brien, 30, a University of Limerick physiotherapy student living in Rhebogue, organised the 26 Miles 26 Heroes event which brought 26 prominent good causes together in a fundraising idea based around last Sunday’s Great Limerick Run. However, when the Leader reported that she had defrauded the mother of a friend out of €3,000, the charities distanced themselves from her and the idea was abandoned.
Following the publication of last week’s story on Ms O’Brien’s activities, this newspaper received a number of phonecalls from people who have come into contact with her in recent years.
Claims by Ms O’Brien to this newspaper that she was the victim in a serious abuse case to be heard at Limerick Circuit Court next month are known to be false.
Considerable doubts have also been expressed about other claims made by Ms O’Brien and several callers said they had suffered financial losses after their dealings with her.
Sharon Walsh, originally from Askeaton but now living in the city, said she had been one of approximately 40 people who responded to an advert placed by Ms O’Brien for a healthcare course held in Newcastle West in 2009.
“She was advertising under Ace Training for a Fetac [Further Education and Training Award Council] Level 5 course in Healthcare Support,” Sharon told the Leader this week.
“We went to the Courtenay Lodge Hotel for registration. There were about 40 people on the course. The cost was €140 and an extra €100 for the Fetac certificate.”
Part of the course involved unpaid work experience at two prominent West Limerick nursing homes.
“We were offered a choice of Killeline in Newcastle West or Abbot Close in Askeaton. I chose Killeline because it was easier to combine it with the theory side of the course, which was being done at the hotel.”
Killeline Nursing Home opened in 2008 and one of its first employees was Denyse O’Brien. The Leader photographed her at the official opening, during which she wore a badge identifying her as part of the team at both Abbot Close and Killeline nursing homes.
However, her employment there ceased later that year.
“The first week we arrived,” recalled Sharon, “a staff member at Killeline said she knew nothing about the work experience and sent us away. One of the women on the course said to us, ‘There’s something wrong here’ and she pulled out of it. But Denyse told us there had just been a mix-up. We went back the second week and it was fine.
“The nursing home was lovely and the people working there were lovely. It didn’t occur to me that there was going to be a problem with my cert.”
There is no suggestion that either of the nursing homes acted improperly or were in any way aware of Denyse O’Brien’s activities.
Sharon’s difficulties arose in 2011 when she was made redundant from her job doing accounts for a construction company. She sought to put her healthcare qualification to use and applied to a number of local nursing homes.
However, she had still not received the Fetac cert promised by Ms O’Brien, who proved to be elusive after Sharon sought to contact her.
“She kept arranging to meet me, then she wouldn’t turn up. She was changing her phone number. I was chasing her for about a year.”
Finally, in the summer of 2012, Ms O’Brien dropped a crude, laminated certificate into Askeaton garda station. It carried the Fetac logo and stated that it had been issued by centre number 41134D.
Suspicious, Sharon contacted Fetac.
“I spoke to a manager there. He said the centre number on the certificate was for Cork University Hospital. I rang the hospital and when I told the lady there that I had done the course in Newcastle West, she said it wasn’t possible that the certificate had anything to do with them. I got back on to the man at Fetac and made a complaint.”
Fetac has since been replaced by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI). Walter Balfe, QQI’s awards and certification manager, was a Fetac employee when Sharon Walsh made her complaint and he recalls the case.
“We confirmed that she was carrying on improperly,” he told the Leader this week.
“She was promising things she couldn’t deliver. We contacted her and explained the legal position.
“We made it very clear that what she was doing was illegal, effectively. She did not have the authorisation. We had no way of contacting everybody who did the course but we did deal with a number of people who contacted us. As far as I remember, we put something on our website at the time.”
Sharon Walsh added: “I contacted Denyse and told her I now knew the certificate was false. I told her I wanted to be compensated. I was trying to chase her for another two months and she kept saying she would meet me, but she never turned up. So I gave a statement to Askeaton gardai.
“I had to go to about five different nursing homes to ask for my CV back, because I couldn’t put myself forward for a job when the qualification on my CV wasn’t real. How many of the students on that course are aware that their certificate is bogus?”
When contacted by the Leader this week, one of the owners of Killeline and Abbot Close nursing homes, Denis McElligott, said: “I am a former employer [of Denyse O’Brien] from seven years ago, but beyond that there is nothing to say on the subject, as far as I am concerned.”
When informed that Ms O’Brien had placed students on her course on work experience placements at his nursing homes in Newcastle West and Askeaton, Mr McElligott responded: “That’s news to me.”
He asked the Leader to put any further questions in writing and responded to these this on Wednesday afternoon, stating: “We had no involvement whatsoever with any course offered or provided by Denyse O’Brien. As we had no involvement with the person or course concerned, the matter of Fetac accreditation never arose. It is a matter for the relevant authorities and should be reported as appropriate to those authorities.
“No individuals carried out work experience at our nursing homes as part of a Denyse O’Brien-run course. All of our carers have authentic Fetac Level 5 Certificates in line with statutory obligations.”
It is understood that Ms O’Brien was cautioned by gardai who investigated the complaint against her over the healthcare course, but no charges were preferred.
Ms O’Brien also set herself up as a nursing home consultant, calling her company Aire Abhaile – which was established in March 2009, shortly after her departure from Killeline and Abbot Close nursing homes at the end of 2008.
Aire Abhaile was based at Woodfield Grove, Killeline, Newcastle West, and adopted the slogan “The 24/7, 365 days a year Nursing Home Consultant”. The Aire Abhaile web page promised: “There are plenty beds to fill and plenty beds to fill them but no independent bed filler!!! Until now.”
Ms O’Brien claimed to have “the dedication for implementing new ideas while simultaneously maintaining high standards of care”.
She offered her services a fee of €200 per day and compared the cost of “a standard marketing campaign” in Limerick with that of engaging her services for two weeks.
Her bill for two weeks amounted to €2,000, as against €8,250 for the “standard” campaign, which included €1,000 for stationery, €550 for stamps, €2,000 for a receptionist, €1,000 for brochures and €3,700 for radio and newspaper advertising. It is not known if she was successful in winning any clients.
When Ms O’Brien launched her 26 Miles 26 Heroes initiative in January of this year, Sharon Walsh was working as a volunteer at Thomond House, a city-based women’s shelter.
As fate would have it, Thomond House was one of the 26 charities nominated by Ms O’Brien as a beneficiary of 26 Miles 26 Heroes.
“I went to the launch,” continued Sharon. “I had no idea Denyse was involved. When she saw me, her face fell. I rang the gardai the next day and was told that she had been given a caution over the course in Newcastle West and that she hadn’t come under the radar since.”
In fact, Denyse O’Brien was already facing a fraud charge which would land her in Kilmallock court on April 21 last. Judge Marian O’Leary heard that she used a debit card belonging to a friend’s mother 51 times, running up a bill of €3,000, including a €500 deposit on a car and a three-night stay in a Limerick hotel which cost €240.
The court was told by Ms O’Brien’s solicitor, Sharon Davern, that she was saving up to repay the injured party. She had, said Ms Davern, saved €2,250 to date and once that reached €3,000, it would be handed over. Judge O’Leary adjourned the case to June 16 for finalisation.
Last week, Ms O’Brien told this newspaper that the net proceeds of a fundraising ball held to support the 26 Miles 26 Heroes initiative were €3,227.
The Strand Hotel, which hosted the ball, is pursuing Ms O’Brien for approximately €900 still owing and contacted gardai last week.
Falsely claiming to have already settled this bill out of her own pocket, Denyse O’Brien said the sum of €3,277 was resting in a credit union account. She contacted the charities last week and asked how they wished her to distribute the funds. She has since threatened a libel action over last week’s Leader story.
We were unable to contact Ms O’Brien for comment.