RAY BURKE was clean. He was not a crooked politician, who used his 30-plus years in elected office to enrich himself through corrupt means. He was a political figure of such ability that wealthy people fell over themselves to throw money at him in the form of political donations.
In this respect, he was a giant of his time.
That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the news that findings of corruption made by the Planning Tribunal against Mr Burke are to be withdrawn.
For anybody under the age of 40, it should be explained here that Mr Burke was a senior Fianna Fáil politician for nearly 30 years, during which he held a number of ministerial portfolios.
He was also a major figure on Dublin County Council for most of that period, right through years of highly controversial rezonings and the type of developer-led planning that was little short of disastrous.
The prevailing system made an awful lot of overnight millionaires in turning the muck of agricultural land into rezoned gold. Allegations that Mr Burke had accepted bribes were the reason why the Planning Tribunal was set up in 1997. That prompted his resignation from politics. The tribunal, which also looked into other matters, cost at least €159m, and sat for 15 years.
The tribunal has been forced to revise its findings on foot of a Supreme Court ruling that those against whom allegations had been made had been deprived of private statements made by the main whistleblower to the tribunal, James Gogarty. The court was of the opinion that this prevented the full testing of Mr Gogarty’s evidence and credibility.
The effect of that has been that any case in which Mr Gogarty was involved — even in a minor role — has now had to be revisited to ensure nobody’s rights were trampled on. Thus, anybody who was cast in a bad light by Mr Gogarty’s evidence now has their reputation restored through the erasure of adverse findings. An earlier court ruling also determined that nearly all parties would also have their costs paid by the State.
Last January, the tribunal withdrew some adverse findings against Mr Burke and others, but now it has emerged that the remaining corruptions findings, dating from 2002, are likely to be erased.
These principally concern Mr Burke’s relationship with a pair of developers, Tom Brennan and Joe McGowan, who held the politician in such esteem that they doled out money to him hand over fist when they were the biggest house builders in the Dublin area.
The tribunal is reported to be erasing findings that the two lads made corrupt payments to Mr Burke. This would effectively render the financial relationship between the politician and the developers as perfectly legit. And what a relationship that was.
A company owned by Mr Brennan and Mr McGowan built Mr Burke’s house in north Dublin in 1973.
Mr Burke told the tribunal that the site cost £7,500, which he acquired from the two boys in lieu of professional auctioneering fees. (Mr Burke was an auctioneer for the first half of his political career, while he bestrode the council engaged in compulsive rezonings.) There is no record of how he accumulated these fees.
The house itself cost £15,000. There is no record of Mr Burke paying for it. A solicitor involved in the transaction told the tribunal no money changed hands. Mr Burke said there was money paid, but it was “a word of honour between men”.
Originally, the tribunal found that the house was given by the developers to Mr Burke for “an improper motive connected with Mr Burke’s position as an elected representative of Dublin County Council”. That finding is now under review. Mr Burke sold the house in 2003 for £3m.
From 1973 through to 1982, the two lads paid Mr Burke a monthly sum of £1,000. During this time the politician was a major power broker in Dublin county council. Mr Burke told the tribunal this money was for auctioneering fees for work he performed at weekends. No invoices, records of sales, returns or contracts were produced to back up this claim.
In the early 1980s, there were a series of payments to the value of £160,000 which the tribunal found to have been corrupt. This money, according to Mr Burke, Mr Brennan and Mr McGowan, was actually political donations, to be used for political purposes. Much of the money was routed through off-shore accounts.
In one instance, Mr McGowan told the tribunal that he was such an admirer of Mr Burke’s he had organised a number of functions in England to raise funds for him. The tribunal didn’t believe any of it.
In today’s money, the accumulated amounts that passed between these parties amounts to millions of euro. When Mr Burke retired, he was found to have retained what he described as a “political fund” of £200,000, which would be north of €1m today, for political purposes like fighting elections.
Now, despite three Garda investigations, and a tribunal that sat for over five years in examining his financial life and times, it would appear that his record is to be wiped clean.
No criminal court or tribunal has determined that he accumulated his vast wealth while in politics for any untoward reason.
Other findings of corruption in relation to Mr Burke’s receipt of money from building firm JMSE and developer Michael Bailey, were dropped in January. It is understood that yet more findings that he received corrupt payments in 1989 in relation to Century Radio, are also gone.
In all cases, there is little dispute that Mr Burke received the monies. A paper trail led to most of the deposits, and the lack of a paper trail in relation to his house led the tribunal to conclude that it was provided free gratis. The matter in dispute was whether these payments were made in order to receive favour from Mr Burke through his elected office, or as legit donations to allow him conduct his political life.
There is no dispute either but that the sums involved far exceeded any costs for elections or to cover the relatively trivial sums politicians routinely splash out for workers or constituency causes.
The sums could, in some cases, have financed a general election for the whole party.
The only real sanction that Burke has had to endure is for tax evasion. He was sentenced to six months in prison in 2004 for failing to make returns. He received a bill for €2m from the Criminal Assets Bureau, and reportedly settled for €600,000.
But there is no evidence or proof that he did anything corrupt. Maybe he’ll now look for his money back from the CAB. If all that money he accumulated was political donations, then no tax was payable on it.
As far as any suggestion that he was corrupt goes, Mr Burke can now hold his head high. The record will show he was a man whose superlative political talent ensured that wealthy individuals fell over themselves to throw money at him in the name of upholding the ideals of democracy.