One of the country’s leading property developers, Owen O’Callaghan was “aware of and actively engaged in” facilitating corrupt payments of almost £120,000 to politicians over a three-year period in the early 1990s, according to the Mahon Tribunal.
The findings against Mr O’Callaghan, including one that he personally made corrupt payments to some politicians, form a central part of its key investigation into planning corruption in Dublin during the 1990s.
However, the tribunal said its findings into claims the Cork multimillionaire had paid £80,000 to Bertie Ahern were “inconclusive”, as it was unable to establish the source of much of the former taoiseach’s funds.
The tribunal said it was satisfied Mr O’Callaghan’s relationship with his PR adviser, Frank Dunlop, and the Fianna Fáil TD Liam Lawlor was “firmly based in corruption”.
It also believes Mr O’Callaghan’s payment of £300,000 to Mr Dunlop in 1998 was disguised as legal fees, but actually linked to the likelihood that the latter would come under investigation by the inquiry.
It emerged that £700,000 of the £1.8m paid by the developer to his PR adviser between 1991 and 2001 was made after it appeared Mr Dunlop would be investigated by the tribunal.
While acknowledging that Mr O’Callaghan might have initially been “a reluctant participant” in corrupt activity, the tribunal said he nevertheless “embraced and adopted” the strategy of bribing politicians.
It concluded he had planned, promoted and organised the strategy of making corrupt payments to councillors based on advice from Mr Dunlop.
Mr O’Callaghan, who gave evidence to the trib-unal over 38 days in 2008, has repeatedly rejected any suggestion that he was aware of any bribes being paid to politicians on his behalf by Mr Dunlop to secure rezoning for a shopping centre he wanted to develop at Quarryvale in west Dublin in the early 1990s.
However, the tribunal found the bulk of substantial sums of money given by Mr O’Callaghan and Mr Dunlop to Mr Lawlor between 1991 and 1996 were “corrupt”.
It rejected as untrue the repeated denials by both men that Mr O’Callaghan was unaware that Mr Dunlop was bribing councillors.
It said most or all of £80,000 given by the developer to Mr Dunlop’s company, Shefran, in 1991 was used as corrupt payments to members of Dublin County Council to secure their support for the rezoning of Quarryvale.
It believed invoices provided by Mr O’Callaghan for the Shefran payments were not generated until years after 1991, contrary to the developer’s evidence.
The tribunal said the payments from such a “war chest” were deliberately not made to Mr Dunlop’s main PR company and it rejected Mr O’Callaghan’s claims they were for professional fees as a lobbyist.
Both Mr O’Callaghan and Mr Dunlop, the tribunal said, anticipated they would be asked for money by certain councillors and it was satisfied the developer provided the money in full knowledge they would be used for corrupt payments.
The tribunal said it was part of “an agreed strategy” by the two men.
Similarly, it found that Mr O’Callaghan provided Mr Dunlop with £70,000 in Nov 1992 to facilitate payments to councillors who were candidates in an upcoming general election which would also coincide with a vote on Quarryvale by Dublin County Council.
The tribunal said it was satisfied the pair were involved in a corrupt endeavour whose purpose was “to compromise the required disinterested performance by councillors of their duties in the making of a development plan”.
The tribunal noted that payments to politicians by Mr Dunlop ceased around the same time as Quarryvale had been rezoned.
Mr O’Callaghan took over the development of the project (now Liffey Valley) from another developer, Tom Gilmartin, with the help of AIB.
The tribunal accepted an incident had occurred as alleged by Mr Gilmartin that Mr O’Callaghan waved a cheque for at least £10,000 in front of him during a taxi ride in 1991 and informed him Cllr Colm McGrath was “on his payroll.”
The tribunal said it was satisfied Mr O’Callaghan felt compelled to make an £80,000 contribution to Fianna Fáil in 1994 in response to a request from Albert Reynolds and Mr Ahern for a substantial donation, out of fear that a failure to do so would impact negatively on his plans to build a national sports stadium in Neilstown. However, it concluded that such a payment, though not corrupt was entirely inappropriate and an abuse of political power and government authority.
Mr O’Callaghan yesterday indicated he would seek a judicial review of the tribunal’s findings by the High Court. He had previously claimed the allegations against him had a “devastating” effect on his family life.
“I want to make it quite clear that I utterly reject the findings of the Mahon Tribunal and that I intend to seek their judicial review in the High Court.
“The tribunal arrived at its conclusions based on procedures which by any reasonable criteria have been biased, unfair and unjust.
“There are so many deficiencies in the way the tribunal went about its work that it is difficult to know where to start. But failing in any way to subject the evidence of its star witness, Tom Gilmartin, to even cursory examination, is probably the most striking.
“The tribunal, through its quite extraordinary protection and mentoring of
Mr Gilmartin, has produced what is clearly an inevitable result having regard to all that has been spent on the process. On any reading, Mr Gilmartin’s evidence was inconsistent, contradictory and unreliable. In a judgment of the Superior Courts of this country his evidence was decried as being unreliable. Yet it appears from the report that his evidence remains the principal foundation for all of the adverse findings against me.
It is simply breathtaking that the tribunal appears to have accepted every allegation made by Mr Gilmartin as the basis for their report.
“In the course of litigation taken by me against the tribunal, one of the Supreme Court judges, Mr Justice Hardiman, said that the tribunal had displayed such bias against me, in favour of Mr Gilmartin, that the tribunal should not be permitted to continue the investigation any further and should be stopped by the courts from any further investigation into me or my companies.
“Mr Justice Hardiman’s criticisms of the tribunal are remarkable and trenchant. They reflect his deep unease at the manner in which the tribunal was conducting its business and should give pause for thought to any fair-minded person reading its findings. It is worthwhile to reprise some of Mr Justice Hardiman’s comments.
“No official investigator is entitled to cherry pick the fruits of investigation, thereby shaping the public enquiry without the persons involved or the public being made aware of the true scope of the evidence. That is what happened here.
“It is striking that all of the material which was withheld was such as tended to protect Mr Gilmartin as a witness and to frustrate any attempt to undermine his credibility, reliability or accuracy.
“I consider these decisions to withhold were quite wrong both objectively and by the tribunal’s own standards and extraordinarily unfair to the applicants.
“I very much regret that I must conclude that Mr O’Callaghan, Mr Deane and associated parties have not been and are not now likely to be treated with manifest fairness by the tribunal.
“There was considerable support right across the political spectrum for the then Quarryvale project. Like many other businesses and individuals at that time, I supported the election campaigns of politicians who long before my involvement in the project had declared their strong support for the project. I find it incomprehensible that the tribunal should conclude, as it has, that this support amounted to corruption and that this compromised the ‘required disinterested performances by councillors of their duties’.
“The findings of the Mahon Tribunal against me, having regard to the evidence given at the tribunal, are simply not sustainable.