O’Brien ‘evasive’ during mobile phone licence talks

BUSINESSMAN Denis O’Brien was evasive and ambivalent during negotiations that secured his consortium the licence to run the State’s second mobile telephone network, the Moriarty Tribunal heard yesterday.

“DOB is as evasive as ever,” wrote Seán MacMahon, of the telecommunications regulatory division in the Department of Communications and a member of the evaluation team that selected Digifone from six bidders. He also said Mr O’Brien was ambivalent on the role of the banks connected with the consortium.

Mr MacMahon’s profile of the Esat Digifone chairman was contained in handwritten notes made a few weeks before the licence was awarded in mid-May 1996. “I knew Denis O’Brien from coming in and out on this issue and I found it was difficult to get a straight answer from him. In his favour, let it be said, Denis O’Brien was a man who surrounded himself with well-chosen experts and it seemed to me that he chose, quite deliberately, not to know too much about the nuts and bolts of his operation,” said Mr MacMahon.

He said Mr O’Brien would refer technical or legal matters to people who could deal with them and give one the impression he didn’t know much about that sort of thing or didn’t want to be bothered with it. “Sometimes, he appeared to me to be deliberately evasive and that is why I made that remark.” Tribunal chairman Mr Justice Michael Moriarty said he didn’t think there was any question of the tribunal seeking to draw any analogy between financier Dermot Desmond and the late Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar after reference was made to the ownership of the winning GSM2 consortium. Tribunal lawyer Jerry Healy SC had suggested civil servants engaged in the process of selecting the GSM2 licence winner wanted to know who they were dealing with and certainly wouldn’t have given the licence to Escobar.

Earlier, Mr MacMahon said he first became aware of Mr Desmond’s involvement in the consortium in mid-April 1996, some weeks before the licence was handed over. The tribunal previously heard Mr Desmond’s private investment company made a deal with Digifone on September 29, 1995, agreeing to underwrite the Irish side of the venture in return for a 20% stake in the consortium.

Asked for his reaction to Mr Desmond’s involvement in the consortium, Mr MacMahon replied that if somebody could be described as an institutional investor and did not deal in Colombian cocaine, the project group would have been happy.

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