Charity investigated over missing funds

By Kevin Magee
BBC News NI Investigations Correspondent

Image caption,
Damien Harte, who once stood for election for the Workers' Party, denies any wrong-doing

A Lurgan-based charity is being investigated by a watchdog over alleged misappropriation of funds.

Growth for Adolescents & Providing Support's chief executive has also been questioned by police investigating dissident IRA activity.

Lurgan man Damien Harte, who runs the charity and once stood for election for the Workers' Party, has denied any wrong-doing.

He said he came to the attention of the police when he tried to negotiate between the PSNI and Republican Sinn Féin when masked republican paramilitaries marched to a memorial in Lurgan in May, 2016.

GAPS is under scrutiny from the charities watchdog, the Charity Commission, for the alleged misappropriation of charitable funds.

According to the commission, other lines of inquiry include "financial mismanagement, and poor governance (for example inaccurate record keeping/failure to retain records)".

"A concern was raised with the Commission in March 2017," it said.

"The Commission was content that the detail within the concern was sufficient to commence general enquiries with the charity.

"The party who raised the concern wishes to remain anonymous at this time," added the Commission.

'Stringent conditions'

GAPS said it provides activities to improve the mental health and physical well-being of young people.

It also claims to mediate on behalf of marginalised or victimised youths who have been threatened by paramilitary groups.

Image caption,
Mr Harte said he had no knowledge of activities of dissident republicans in Lurgan

"Our CALMS mediation project seeks to be a confidential non-judgemental service, that engages individuals who feel their life and liberty is at risk," said the charity.

Asked what percentage of the charity's funds went on this activity, the commission said it could not comment.

Previously, the charity rented 3G pitches at the Centrepoint activity centre in Lurgan, but it has no links to Centrepoint.

GAPS made money by charging groups or individuals to use the sports facilities.

It also attracted grants of £1,218 from Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council and £3,955 from the Big Lottery Fund to help young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to improve their balance and motor skills.

Its turnover was in the region of £70,000 a year.

SDLP Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly said she was "not au fait" with how that money was spent.

"I don't know whether it's good value or not, but I certainly am surprised at the amount of money this charity has been able to accrue over a relatively short space of time," she said.

As part of the commission's investigation, Mr Harte has been removed as a trustee of the charity.

Stringent conditions have also been imposed on the charity's bank account.

Consultants have been appointed, and according to the commission, the charity known as GAPS is no longer in operation.

Ms Kelly said: "I did not know until very recently that the charity had closed down because there has not been a single person, community group, voluntary agency or single young person who has approached us to express any alarm about that."

'Involved in class struggle'

Mr Harte declined to do a recorded interview but confirmed that, as well the Charity Commission investigation, he had been questioned by police in relation to their inquiries into dissident IRA activity.

"The questioning was about the activities of dissident republicans of which I know nothing," he told BBC News NI.

"To suggest I'm involved in anything like that is a nonsense."

Mr Harte said he felt he had been treated unfairly.

"But I have to accept that if you are involved in a class struggle there will be bumps along the way," he added.

His home had been searched and computers belonging to the charity and phones had been removed, he said.

Mr Harte added that he had been held for two days in Antrim police station, when arrested last month.

In the 2015 general election he stood as a candidate for the Workers' Party and polled 351 votes. According to a spokesperson for the party, he left the following year.

After the Charity Commission investigations began, graffiti about Mr Harte appeared on walls in Lurgan, which Mr Harte said was unwarranted and untrue.

"The CCNI represents the interests of the establishment, and not that of my class," he said.

The grant from the Big Lottery Fund was given and increase their chances of being able to ride a bike.

Update 8 June 2021: The order to remove Mr Harte as a trustee was deemed to be invalid following a Court of Appeal judgement in 2020, which ruled that the decision-making process used by the Charity Commission in thousands of cases registered prior to May 2019 was unlawful. The court ruling said all commission decisions must be made by the board of commissioners, or a committee with delegated authority, rather than by commission staff.

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