The theft and fraud trial of Thomas Byrne has heard of the day “everything went horribly wrong” for the former solicitor when one of his employees reported him to the authorities.
Barbara Cooney was an assistant solicitor in Mr Byrne’s Walkinstown firm when she allegedly discovered that he had forged her signature on a document related to a €4.5m loan from Irish Nationwide Building Society.
Ms Cooney told the court that she felt threatened and scared while in the office after making the discovery.
She said Mr Byrne and his business partner John Kelly both pleaded with her not to go to the Law Society about the forged signature and that Mr Kelly told her that Mr Byrne was suicidal and an alcoholic.
Later that day she went to the Law Society, who moved in and shut down the accused’s practice early the following week.
Mr Byrne (aged 47) of Walkinstown Road, Crumlin is accused of theft and fraud offences totalling €51.8m.
The charges allege he transferred clients’ homes into his name and then used them as collateral for property loans.
He has pleaded not guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to 51 counts of theft, forgery, using forged documents and deception between 2004 and 2007.
Ms Cooney told defence counsel Damien Colgan SC that she knew her employer had forged her signature on a previous occasion as part of a loan application to EBS.
When she discovered the forgery, Mr Byrne claimed he did it as “a matter of expediency”.
He said he needed her signature because he was the borrower and needed a third-party solicitor’s name on the document.
Mr Byrne told her he had been stupid, was under a lot of pressure and wasn’t thinking straight. The firm’s office manager assured Ms Conroy that he had never done anything similar before.
Ms Conroy agreed with Mr Colgan that she remained with Mr Byrne’s company until “the day it all went horribly wrong” on October 18, 2007.
It was then that she received a call from Irish Nationwide Building Society referring to a solicitor’s undertaking she signed stating that she would register several properties which were being used by Mr Byrne as collateral.
She said the society faxed over the undertaking and she saw that the signature on it was not hers. She went to speak to Thomas Byrne’s accountant, Gerry Cahill, and a short time later Mr Byrne and Mr Kelly came into the office.
She said that Mr Kelly sent Mr Byrne out of the office before trying to persuade her not to go to the Law Society about the forged signature. Mr Kelly told her that the accused was an alcoholic and had tried to take his own life.
Mr Cooney wept in the witness box as she described feeling threatened “by everything that was going on”. She said she was afraid “but couldn’t say why I was afraid”.
She said her secretary agreed to drive her to the Law Society because she was so upset and that Mr Byrne followed her out to the car while asking her not to go.
He said he would “sort it out” with the building society and that he was sorry.
The witness told Mr Colgan that Mr Byrne then said he would tell the Law Society the truth. Ms Cooney said she screamed at him that he had ruined her life before getting in the car and driving to Law Society headquarters on Blackhall Place.
She resigned the same day and the Law Society moved in the following Monday. The trial has previously heard that Mr Byrne’s files were seized and his accounts frozen. Ms Cooney said the accused did not return to the office again.
The trial has begun hearing evidence from the head of the Garda investigation, Detective Sergeant Paschal Walsh, who is expected to be the final prosecution witness.
Det Sgt Walsh told prosecuting counsel Remy Farrell SC, that the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation acquired the files from the Law Society in mid-November 2007.
Det Sgt Walsh said during the investigation he helped put together a detailed chart summarising the allegations against Mr Byrne. This chart was provided to the jurors.
The trial continues tomorrow with the Det Sgt Walsh’s evidence before Judge Patrick McCartan and a jury of seven men and five women.