Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar has come to be known as a leaker. The hashtag #leotheleak has trended on Twitter on several occasions after Varadkar was accused of publishing things he shouldn’t have. That Leo leaks however hasn’t yet been proven — or become a political liability for the Tánaiste. That may change with evidence from a healthcare whistleblower that Varadkar, while Taoiseach, leaked a confidential document to a personal associate.
Chay Bowes has spent the last two decades as an uneasy insider in Irish healthcare. He’s been successful: he’s picked up HSE contracts; he’s established and managed profitable companies; he’s sold one to the state-owned VHI Healthcare. He’s also come to understand the behaviour and business practices required and rewarded in Ireland’s two-tier healthcare industry, an industry populated by a mix of public and private operators. And he’s been frustrated.
He’s seen how it’s in private operators’ interest to peddle for influence with their public counterparts — be they government or Health Service Executive (HSE) representatives — and then tout this influence as a marker of their significance within the increasingly privatised industry. He’s seen how these public and private players frequently switch sides, moving from one sector to the other and then back again.
Over the last 20 years, Bowes has both courted and been courted by a former HSE director-general for Community Hospital Ireland (CHI), a nonprofit Bowes founded in 2018, which he now says is “dead” after running into what he considers political opposition. While coming up against a competitor private healthcare company, he says he saw how crucial political connections with senior Fine Gael figures and HSE executives are to the delivery of supposedly patient-centric healthcare.
And while building the relationships needed to deliver CHI, Bowes was witness to then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar leaking a confidential and commercially sensitive document to personal associate Maitiú Ó Tuathail, who has since become a regular fixture in Irish media.
“I was dumbfounded that a friend of the then Taoiseach was claiming such professional closeness to him that he would improperly forward him potentially explosive confidential documentation,” he says.
Since becoming Tánaiste Varadkar has been accused of a number of leaks. After he appeared to publish Budget 2020 details before its official announcement, the hashtag #leotheleak trended, just as it had following Varadkar’s criticisms of NPHET on Claire Byrne Live in early October. The Tánaiste has also seemed to undermine Taoiseach Micheál Martin on other occasions, announcing that Kildare was to stay in its August lockdown longer than expected before Martin had the chance to hold a press conference. The hashtag spoke to a belief, until now unsubstantiated, that Varadkar leaks information to friendly journalists in Irish media.
With his leak to Ó Tuathail however comes the first evidence of a potentially illegal leak from Varadkar — a leak that carries with it a potential 10-year sentence under the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018.
At the time of the leak, Maitiú Ó Tuathail was president of the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP), an embattled GPs’ union that would be liquidated with more than €400,000 in debts just months later. Though the NAGP as an organisation held little influence, Ó Tuathail claimed to be a personal friend of Varadkar. He claimed to be able to speak to Varadkar’s true feelings on direct provision, distinct from his public statements, and boasted that “Leo always delivers” when it came to personal favours.
This was a personal favour however that leaves Varadkar open to serious corruption charges.
Making it to the inside
On finishing school in Dublin, Chay Bowes joined the army medical corps in 1988 and trained as a paramedic. In 1993 he was working as a phlebotomist, drawing patients’ blood in St James’s Hospital, where he says he began noticing a pattern of patients checking into the hospital and staying longer than was necessary. He thought they’d be better off receiving care in their homes and says the research backs this up, that both the financial and clinical benefits of home treatment are well established and that up to 30 percent of patients would be better served this way.
He approached Gerry McElvaney, a professor in the Royal College of Surgeons who had previously worked in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and the pair began work on Tara Healthcare, a company they founded together in 2004. By 2007 the HSE had contracted Tara Healthcare to provide Hospital in the Home, a programme that moved patient care away from hospitals and into households, with an annual budget of almost €6.4 million. It was a commercial success, but the HSE decided against renewing the contract as a cost-cutting measure. VHI stepped in and bought the company, making Bowes the CEO of the newly formed VHI Hospital@home.
Bowes reluctantly left the company in 2011 and spent six years pursuing other interests. It was in 2017 he returned to healthcare and founded Community Hospital Ireland (CHI) with fellow entrepreneur Neil Pope. Like Tara Healthcare, CHI would focus on providing healthcare in patients’ homes and reinvest any profits into chronic illness prevention and treatment. In its early stages CHI seemed to enjoy strong institutional support both within the state and from clinical leaders.
The early signs for CHI were positive, but Bowes knew that for it to be a success, he needed partners. Particularly crucial would be the support of Ireland’s GP community, without which, Bowes thought, CHI would fail. Maitiú Ó Tuathail was the man Bowes thought could deliver this support. Ó Tuathail, then 29 years old and from Galway Gaeltacht Leitirmóir, was president of the NAGP, an upstart GP union competing with the longer established and more influential Irish Medical Organisation (IMO).
Bowes wanted Ó Tuathail to get the NAGP behind CHI. It was during their negotiations and subsequent friendship that Ó Tuathail would show Bowes what it means to really be on the inside.
Knowing things he shouldn’t
Ó Tuathail liked the sound of CHI. Not only was he willing to pledge the NAGP’s support, he told Bowes he could deliver more. “I can get this in front of Leo (Varadkar) and Simon (Harris),” he told Bowes, showing him text messages from the former Taoiseach, as well as a selection of photos of him socialising with both Varadkar and his partner, Matt Barrett, a cardiology consultant in Denis O’Brien’s Beacon Hospital. Ó Tuathail is the only person Barrett follows on Twitter. “This was a guy with connections,” says Bowes.
Ó Tuathail would later send a picture of himself, Varadkar and Barrett in a Dublin pub to Bowes. The caption read “CHI sorted.” Bowes says he didn’t doubt Ó Tuathail held influence with Varadkar. He took Ó Tuathail at his word and he believed the young GP had been able to advance the interests of CHI with the Taoiseach.
This was all part of Ó Tuathail’s appeal to the insurgent NAGP. They “wanted to have a young face” at the helm, according to one former member, and the well connected and articulate Ó Tuathail was elected president in 2018.
His task was taking on the incumbent IMO, to encourage Irish GPs that their interests would be better served as members of the NAGP and that his union was closer to government. The NAGP was however competing against the IMO with a handicap. Varadkar’s government had excluded the NAGP from the most important discussions affecting GPs in a generation: talks on GP Contractual Reform and Service Development, which would eventually lead to a €210 million deal for the provision of GP services, along with the restoration of cuts enacted during the austerity years post the 2008 financial crash.
The NAGP’s exclusion from the negotiations dated back to 2015 when it instructed its members to reject proposals for the provision of free healthcare to under-sixes. Varadkar, then Minister for Health, told the Sunday Business Post that this position made it “hard to see any real basis for partnership at this time”.
Though the NAGP wasn’t officially in the room where negotiations were being held, it now had Ó Tuathail leading the association, and he seemed to know how talks were progressing. “He seemed to know things that he shouldn’t know,” as one former NAGP member put it.
‘What’s your home address?’
A text message landed in Maitiú Ó Tuathail’s phone at 2pm on an early April afternoon, 2019: “What’s your home address?” Ó Tuathail responded with his south Dublin address and thanked the sender. The question had been put to him so a package could be sent his way.
That day a courier delivered to Ó Tuathail a document. Two days later Ó Tuathail sent Bowes a multimedia message with a picture of this document. “Terms of Agreement between the Department of Health, the HSE and the IMO, re: GP Contractual Reform and Service,” was printed across the front, along with the warning that the document was “confidential” and “not for circulation”. There was a scrawl in black marker at the top of the document reading, “Subject to amendment / changes.”
To explain to Bowes how he got this confidential document, Ó Tuathail, in his multimedia message, wrote, “To be fair. Leo always delivers.” The black marker scrawled on the document was in Leo Varadkar’s handwriting. It was Leo Varadkar who asked Ó Tuathail what his home address was. It was Leo Varadkar who leaked this document to him.
Leo Varadkar’s leak to Ó Tuathail may have left the current Tánaiste exposed to legal trouble. Here is perhaps the first evidence of the Tánaiste’s indiscretion when it comes to confidential information and documentation. It’s an indiscretion that may contravene the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018, the Dáil members’ Code of Conduct 2002, and the Official Secrets Act, 1963. The Corruption Act alone carries a penalty of up to 10 years in jail and prohibition from holding public office.
In a group chat called ‘NAGP inner sanctum’, which included former NAGP chairman Andrew Jordan, who in 2017 was the state’s top-earning family doctor, receiving €1.1 million in fees from medical cards, members discussed both the document’s worth to the NAGP and its provenance.
Ó Tuathail warned members of the group against circulating the document, as it would be “immediately identifiable”. One member asked whether the document had been stolen, writing, “Where did you rob it? Did anyone see you? Did you make a clean getaway Matt?” Others talked about how to best use the document in the NAGP’s ongoing battle with the IMO: it was suggested to circulate the document before a “self-congratulatory meeting” of the NAGP and to “steal their (the IMO’s) thunder”.
Jordan, who along with Ó Tuathail was the NAGP’s most visible public face, who shared protest stages with Labour leader Alan Kelly and Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly, where all three called for the immediate reversal of cuts to government GP funding, recognised the importance of protecting the leak. “We owe it to Maitiú that this remains very confidential… Must not leak,” he wrote, also asking the rest of the group to, “Scan if you can and we can go through it… Different people will pick up on different things in it.”
The leaked document came too late to make a significant difference to the NAGP. Before the organisation could use it to try to steal their competitor’s “thunder”, the NAGP’s national leadership council resigned. Ó Tuathail was among the resignations, and he said his concerns about the union’s governance led to his stepping down. “Serious issues of internal governance were brought to the attention of the national council and the directors of the NAGP,” he said in a statement, also saying that efforts to resolve these issues had been unsuccessful.
Jordan at the time said the NAGP was “imploding”. He was to be proved right: it was liquidated soon after with more than €400,000 in debts. Bowes, who had written an observational report on the NAGP that “documented wholesale impropriety”, struggled to understand why Varadkar would risk his professional reputation leaking the document to any organisation, let alone the dysfunctional NAGP.
Ó Tuathail continued to make his proximity to Varadkar central to his persona within the healthcare industry, both publicly and privately. When the Irish Independent reported on Varadkar’s trip to Blanchardstown’s Morgan’s Place halting site during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the photograph the paper used of the Taoiseach wearing medical scrubs was credited to Ó Tuathail — he had taken the photograph, having attended the site with Varadkar.
Ó Tuathail, who once asked whether Bowes would consider opening a direct provision centre, given the financial rewards for doing so, also claimed to know Varadkar’s true feelings on direct provision. Responding to a Bowes WhatsApp message about potential system reform, Ó Tuathail wrote, “LEO literally couldn’t give a fuck about the refugees. Its (Justice Minister Charlie) flanagans baby. There would be a HUGE amount of work required to get it over the line.”
Bowes and Ó Tuathail continued to work on CHI for a short period, with Bowes hoping Ó Tuathail’s connections and standing among Irish GPs would work to the company’s advantage, before he eventually abandoned the project. Since his days leading the NAGP, Ó Tuathail’s public profile has increased. He’s come to be considered a trusted voice during the Covid-19 pandemic, going viral across the world with a video disproving the idea that protective face masks can cause drops in wearers’ oxygen levels. He has also produced videos for the Irish Independent — Dr Matt Answers Your Covid Concerns — and is a regular on Virgin Media’s the Tonight Show and both RTÉ television and radio.
Varadkar meanwhile has gained an as-yet unproven reputation for leaking to the media, along with the nickname Leo the Leak. Maybe it’ll stick.