Former solicitor Thomas Byrne has told his €52m theft and fraud trial that was under threat from property developer John Kelly to fund his “outlandish” lifestyle.
Giving evidence in his own defence, Mr Byrne (aged 47) broke down several times as he described Mr Kelly’s girlfriend, Mary O’Connor, making veiled threats against his daughter when he refused to pay over €250,000 so Mr Kelly could travel to Spain.
Mr Byrne also alleged that Mr Kelly was “grooming” him to get multi million euro loans on his behalf because the banks would no longer lend to the property developer.
He said that the banks knew he was getting the loans for Mr Kelly but did not care because they were so eager be involved with Mr Kelly’s business ventures.
Mr Byrne told defence counsel Damien Colgan SC that by this stage he was a chronic alcoholic and rarely came into the office.
“I knew the whole thing was going to fall apart, and it did,” he said.
The accused also said that after a colleague complained to the Law Society about the alleged fraud, he was told to come to a Centra shop in Rathmines.
He said he was brought to a walk-in freezer at the back of the shop where he thought he was going to be killed. Instead a sister of Ms O’Connor gave him a hug and a suitcase containing €10,000.
Mr Byrne said that on the same day, Mr Kelly contacted him and told to leave the country “or there would be serious consequences”.
“I was terrified of the man. I was more in fear for my family's welfare because he knew everything about them and he knew where they lived.”
He said he travelled to Brighton where he stayed with a relative of an employee. He said he was later in a “seedy hotel” near Heathrow when he was persuaded by his estranged wife and his solicitor to come home.
Mr Byrn, 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 50 counts of theft, forgery, using forged documents and deception between 2004 and 2007.
The accused told the court he met Mr Kelly though Ms O’Connor and invested in a property deal with him. He said the deal yielded a profit of about €1m which Mr Kelly then demanded in full to “square things” with his bank.
Mr Byrne said he was reluctant, but agreed to hand over the money after Mr Kelly became very aggressive. He said after this the developer “inveigled” his way into his practice.
“He indicated his brother was involved with people up the North, as he put it,” Mr Byrne told counsel.
The accused said Mr Kelly would demand money on a nearly daily basis, amounting to nearly €8m over the years, to fund his “outlandish” lifestyle.
He said the developer had “a voracious appetite for money, but no income of his own.”
Mr Byrne claimed he was scared of Mr Kelly so agreed to fund his day-to-day living but that the demands caused him to start drinking and taking tablets.
He said one day after he had been drinking he felt brave and when Mr Kelly rang up demanding money to go to Spain, he told him to “f-off”.
He said shortly afterwards he got a call from Ms O’Connor who commented that his daughter was wearing a beautiful outfit on the way to school that day.
“That was the way they threatened me and my family,” Mr Byrne told the trial.
Mr Byrne said Mr Kelly’s current account had a €1m overdraft which was constantly breached. He said the bank manager would ring him up and he would be responsible for lodging money to settle it for Mr Kelly.
The accused gave evidence that the banks “loved” Mr Kelly but couldn’t lend to him because he had never paid tax in this country and had no income.
He said the developer needed millions to fund various projects in Ireland and England so began “grooming” the solicitor to borrow money on his behalf.
“I was the perfect candidate for him to introduce to the banks,” he said.
The accused said the lenders were well aware the money was for Mr Kelly but did not question it.
He said on one occasion Mr Kelly told KBC bank official, Noel O’Leary, that Mr Byrne was the “right hand man” to the founder of Prada.
“I’m not of course but, having said that, if John Kelly had said I was one of Madonna’s backing singers, Noel O’Leary would have believed it because they wanted to lend money so bad.”
He said banks would ring his office regularly looking to lend money and that Mr Kelly would fly bankers to golfing trips and rallies in the UK.
The accused told counsel that Mr Kelly organised a number of social events in order to appear to be a “mover and shaker in the Irish economy.”
He said that then Minister for Justice Michael McDowell spoke at one of his events and that the then Tánaiste Mary Harney opened another.
Referring to charges that he defrauded several people out of their homes by using forged deeds of transfer, Mr Byrne said these people had agreed to sell him the houses but that the collapse of his practice meant they were never paid.
He said Mr Kelly was putting him under pressure to borrow money and he was always on the lookout for properties to purchase as security for these loans.
Mr Byrne said the owners of two houses on Bunting Road in Walkinstown agreed to sell their houses to him with a “long closing date” because his practice was unable to come up with the funds immediately.
He said the closing of his practice by the Law Society meant these funds were never paid over.
The trial was adjourned slightly early today because Mr Byrne’s counsel felt ill.
The accused is due to continue giving evidence on Monday before Judge Patrick McCartan and a jury of seven men and five women.