The case that throws witness protection programme under the spotlight

Special Correspondent Michael Clifford details a case that provides a rare glimpse into the State’s witness security programme and how the whole process of relocating witnesses is fraught with danger
The case that throws witness protection programme under the spotlight

DAVID Mooney lost his High Court action last Tuesday. Mr Mooney is not a well-known name, but his story and the action that ended last week shine a light into an area of the criminal justice system that is necessarily shrouded in mystery.

Once upon a time Mooney was in the State’s witness security programme, the process set up following the murder of Veronica Guerin. The programme is designed to relocate witnesses in serious criminal trials for their own protection.

Mooney had brought an action against the State claiming that his security had been compromised, and the State had reneged on a promise to offer him €600,000. The action was held in camera to protect the identity of the gardaí involved in the programme, and details of how it operates, particularly with regard to relations with countries where witnesses are received. The new life offered by the programme didn’t work out for this witness. He blamed the state and sued. On Tuesday, judge Paul Gilligan threw out the action.

Back in 2002, David Mooney was operating a lap dancing club in Dublin’s Temple Bar. He had worked in the bar business abroad, in Denmark, Germany, and Jersey, and had returned the previous year to set up the club. His new venture was called Bunnies.

David Mooney: He entered the State’s witness security programme in 2003. Picture: RTÉ
David Mooney: He entered the State’s witness security programme in 2003. Picture: RTÉ

Things were up and running when two men walked into Bunnies looking to talk to him. Martin Kelly, a former soldier, of Westpark Artane, and William Clare, of Adare Park, Coolock, claimed to be from a dissident organisation. They told him that some people didn’t like Bunnies and he’d have to cough up to keep the show on the road.

They demanded €50,000. When Mooney asked what would happen if he didn’t pay out, he says he was told: “My dancers would be hurt, my girlfriend would be hurt and the premises would be petrol-bombed”.

He told “Billy” — William Clare — he didn’t have the cash. Billy said he’d make a phonecall to Derry or Belfast. When he came back, the price had dropped to €25,000.

Over the course of a week, Mooney made three separate payments of €5,000 in cash to the two men in an alcove near the Central Bank, at the fringe of Temple Bar. He told the men he had organised that a partner of his would pay the balance.

As it turned out, the two lads were under surveillance. Mooney was visited by the constabulary and he spilled the beans.

That was the end of his association with Bunnies. The option open to him was to enter the witness security programme. He did so in February 2003, and the following November gave evidence in the trial of the two men. A guilty verdict was returned and both were jailed for four years, with six months suspended.

By then, Mooney had run into trouble in the programme. During the trial he admitted under questioning that he had on one occasion recently passed himself off as a garda in an attempt to obtain car insurance. He also agreed that he was paid €150 per week on the programme. It was put to him that he had a cocaine habit and that he had hit a lapdancer, but he denied both suggestions.

Away from the courtroom he hadn’t exactly comported himself as a man who wanted to keep the head down under a new identity. He was “very outgoing”, according to Judge Gilligan in last week’s ruling. Apart from passing himself off as a garda, he had gone to the media about his situation and had told at least one individual he was on the programme.

After the trial, an assessment had to be made by those running the programme. Was this man suitable for it in the long term? Would it be possible to be on the programme while appearing in the media on a regular basis or sharing his circumstances down the local pub? In the recent High Court action, the State had claimed that Mooney had “blown his cover” on several occasions by then.

There was another consideration. In the long term, relocation would have to be abroad. As one source familiar with the programme put it: “Look at it like a parcel. We can’t mind the parcel here, the country is too small. It has to be passed to another country. And they will want to know whether the parcel is sound.”

RELOCATING Mooney to another country at that point would involve laying out his record for the recipient country. Anything less would impact on international relations in an area where such relations are vital. In the end, it was determined that he wasn’t suitable for continuing in it.

In such a scenario, the system dictates that the witness is given a chunk of money and copious advice. There is also provision that if any threat is perceived the witness will immediately receive adequate protection.

It was the terms of the agreement that were at issue in the recent High Court case. Mooney claimed he had been put under duress to exit the programme in February 2004, and that he had been promised a new house, car, name, date of birth, personal public service number, an income, and a green card for the USA.

The State denied the claims, and last Tuesday, Judge Gilligan ruled in the State’s favour. He acknowledged that the threat to Mooney’s life may be potentially always there and noted that the State agreed it had an ongoing obligation to protect him. However, he ruled that there was no evidence to support Mooney’s claims about what he was promised, or that the State was liable to pay him damages.

While the case was held in camera, the ruling was issued in public, offering a rare glimpse of the witness security programme.

On the face of it, David Mooney was ideal material for the witness security programme. He wasn’t a criminal as most candidates are. By all accounts he wasn’t encumbered with a large extended family, an issue that can cause major problems for relocating witnesses. And he appeared to possess the human resources to begin again somewhere else. Yet it didn’t turn out that way.

Mooney’s case was raised in the Dáil last year by Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Niall Collins, who told the Minister for Justice that the man had fears for his safety.

Her reply outlined how candidates are selected for the programme.

“Admission to the programme is considered by a high level group that comprises senior gardaí and a representative from the office of the director of public prosecutions and it assesses the range of legal, security and other issues. The operation of the programme is kept under constant review.”

In the round the case provided a glimpse at how the whole business of relocating witnesses is fraught with danger, and the possibility that despite all precautions, it doesn’t necessarily suit every candidate.

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