Ahern associates to give evidence

Paul Cullen tells us that:

Two of the Taoiseach’s long-time associates are to give evidence in a new module of the planning tribunal to start today.

Robert White, who went to school with Bertie Ahern, and Tim Collins, one of the trustees of his Drumcondra office, are scheduled to give evidence about a planning issue in Swords.

Former Government press secretary Frank Dunlop alleges Mr White paid him £5,000 to lobby county councillors for the construction of a hotel on the land.

Mr Dunlop claims he gave Fianna Fail county councillor Cyril Gallagher £2,000 in the Grand Hotel in Malahide in the early 1990s for his support.

He says Mr White told him he had discussed the matter with Mr Gallagher and local TD GV Wright. Mr White and Mr Wright deny any impropriety, while Mr Gallagher died in 2000.

The land was owned by the Duff family but Mr White, a jeweller and property developer, represented a consortium, Nosaka Ltd, formed to develop the hotel.

Cross-examination of Mr Dunlop on the Ballycullen rezoning in south Dublin is due to finish today, bringing that module to a close. In the afternoon, he will give evidence in the new module on the Duff lands.

Mr White was involved in a controversial attempt to build a casino and conference centre on the disused Phoenix Park racecourse in the mid-1990s. An Bord Pleanala gave the £375 million project the go-ahead but it foundered when politicians refused to sanction a casino licence. Having bought the site in 1993 for £10 million, Mr Turner and his business partner sold it in 1998 for £35 million to a firm of housebuilders.

In 2000, another associate of Mr Ahern’s, Des Richardson, said he had been approached by a director of the project – understood to be Mr White – to ask Liam Lawlor to act as a consultant. At the time, Mr Lawlor claimed he had been offered £100,000 to lobby for the project.

Mr Collins’ involvement in the Duff lands is unclear, but he has acted as an intermediary between Mr Dunlop and developers in other developments.

Separately, the tribunal is investigating the acquisition by the State of the Battle of the Boyne site in Co Meath from a company in which Mr Collins was involved. In 2000, the OPW paid £9.4 million for the site acquired by Mr Collins and his partners for £3.43 million three years earlier. Mr Collins was also present at a meeting between the Taoiseach and developer Tom Gilmartin in 1988.

The Duff module is expected to last just a few days.

Cyril Gallagher's counsel denies bribery allegation

Frank Dunlop alleges that he gave north Dublin counsellor Cyril Gallagher (deceased), £18,000 between 1991 and 1993 in return for rezonings around Swords. His counsel argue that there is no documentary evidence. If they were corrupt payments there is bound to be no documentary evidence, it was in cash allegedly.

Mr Montgomery said Mr Dunlop was completely wrong; Mr Gallagher had not asked for the money and it was not given. It was Mr Dunlop’s word against Mr Gallagher’s, and Mr Gallagher was dead.

Mr Dunlop said he rejected this. It was sad that Mr Gallagher was dead. He had attended his funeral. The money he gave Mr Gallagher paled into insignificance in comparison to what others got and he had made far greater allegations against councillors who were still alive.

The tribunal is investigating claims by Mr Dunlop that a landowner, Robert White, paid him £5,000 in the early 1990s to keep certain councillors “onside” for an application to build houses on agricultural land owned by the Duff family.

Mr White acknowledges paying Mr Dunlop £2,500 by cheque for public relations work but denies asking the lobbyist to influence councillors.

Yesterday, it emerged that Mr Dunlop alleges he paid Mr Gallagher a total of £18,000 between 1991 and 1993 in return for his support for various rezonings.

He said Mr Gallagher knew Swords like the back of his hand and had a good idea of what could be done and what could not in planning terms.

Gallagher noted before he died:

Mr Gallagher, who died in March 2000, said in a statement to the tribunal the previous year that the most he ever received from Mr Dunlop was £300 in election support or contributions and added that was if he did get it.

Developers gave councillor £9,000

The Irish Times reports from the Mahon Tribunal:

Developers gave a former Democratic Left county councillor £9,000 for charity after South Dublin County Council gave them the go-ahead to build extra houses on rezoned land, the tribunal has heard.

Tallaght councillor Michael Billane voted in February 1996 to increase from 360 to 600 the number of houses Ballycullen Farms could build on their land. The change, a material contravention of the local plan requiring a 75 per cent majority of councillors, added £2.1 million to the value of their south Dublin land.

It continues:

Judge Mary Faherty said Mr Billane had voted against building 360 houses on the land in 1993 and then, more than two years later, he had voted in favour of 600 houses. She asked what had prompted his “quantum leap”.

Mr Billane said the original proposal would see millionaire’s houses built on the land, while the increase in density would provide more affordable housing and more employment for building workers.

A ‘quantum leap’ about sums it up.

Kitt forgot to inform tribunal of over £3,000 in donations

More amnesia at the Mahon Tribunal.

Government chief whip Tom Kitt forgot to tell the tribunal about more than £3,000 in donations from landowner Christopher Jones, it emerged yesterday.

Mr Kitt, who is still trying to establish with his bank how much he got from Mr Jones, yesterday admitted his initial response to tribunal inquiries wasn’t as comprehensive as it should have been.

Last month, he wrote to the tribunal acknowledging he got a £500 donation from Mr Jones in 1991, according to senior counsel for the tribunal Patricia Dillon. He also said he received £800from an employee of Mr Jones, Frank Brooks, at a golf classic last year.

But Ms Dillon said this did not represent all the payments Mr Kitt received from Mr Jones. The tribunal had sent him financial records, including copies of cheques, for three other payments, for £2,000 in 1992, £500 in 1992 and €650 in 2002.

Mr Kitt had then replied saying he had no specific recollection of these cheques.

Due to pressure of work, his response to the tribunal letter hadn’t been as comprehensive as it ought to have been, he said.

He was on the radio yesterday too:

He blamed the omission on poor records that he kept at the time. He said he was “annoyed” that he had not been able to recall the donation, but was happy to clarify the situation at the tribunal yesterday.

Fitzwilton to seek tribunal files on Burke payment

You might have all forgotten, since in a strange decision (well normal for those of us who believe in the Banana Republic) Ray ‘Rambo’ Burke was let out of prison quietly, early, and on the sly, in order to avoid a media scrum. How nice. Anyway he did spend time in prison, but the Mahon Tribunal still plods along. In the latest twist:

The President of the High Court will next week hear an application by Fitzwilton Ltd for access to documents from the Mahon tribunal.

The company wants the documents before the tribunal begins public hearings into a £30,000 payment by Fitzwilton to former minister Ray Burke for Fianna Fail funds.

Fitzwilton was last month granted leave to challenge, in judicial review proceedings, the tribunal’s decision not to divulge the contents of documents.

Mr Justice Joseph Finnegan will hear the case in the High Court next Monday.

Fitzwilton is seeking to quash the tribunal’s decision refusing access to particular documents and also wants an order compelling the tribunal to make the documents available to its legal team.

The High Court was told last month that, before the 1989 general election, Fianna Fail had officially solicited a political contribution of £30,000 from Fitzwilton, which the company agreed to make via Mr Burke.

The court heard that Mr Burke handed over only £10,000 of the contribution to Fianna Fail and that the company had not become aware until 1998 that Mr Burke had retained £20,000.

Fitzwilton was contacted by the tribunal in April 1998 about the contribution, which is now the subject of an investigation by the tribunal.

Now of course it is argued that the £30,000 (which was alot of money back then) was merely a political donation and no benefit would come to Fitzwilton for making it. Whether Rambo was supposed to get two thirds of it is another question.

Fitzwilton bids to block Mahon inquiry into Burke payment

More legal challenges to the Mahon Tribunal.

Fitzwilton will launch a legal bid in the High Court tomorrow to block the Mahon Tribunal from holding any public hearings into a £30,000 payment by the company to Ray Burke for Fianna Fail Funds.

Mr John Gordon, SC, counsel for Fitzwilton, told Mr Justice Barry White today that the application would “go to the heart of the Tribunal’s entitlement to have public hearings at all” relating to the Fitzwilton payment.

He said that should he succeed in obtaining leave of the court to challenge the Tribunal’s right to hold public hearings he would be asking the court to impose a stay on the hearings which the Tribunal had scheduled to start on September 28th.

State may face €100m legal bill for planning tribunal

It should be remembered however that a far larger sum than €100 million has been recovered by the State in terms of unpaid tax revenue.

A decision by the planning tribunal to award legal costs to most witnesses has left the State with a bill running into ten of millions of euro.

The chairman of the tribunal, Judge Alan Mahon, said yesterday he would award costs “save in exceptional circumstances” to witnesses who had co-operated with the inquiry and against whom no adverse finding had been made.

His decision paves the way for most of the 170-plus witnesses who appeared before the tribunal between 1998 and 2002 to have their costs paid by the State.

Informed estimates say the bill for their legal costs could approach €100 million, on top of the running costs of over €30 million for the tribunal itself. This amount far exceeds the €34.5 million paid to the Revenue Commissioners in connection with tribunal-related inquiries up to 2002.

Mahon Tribunal awards 10 full cost

James Gogarty has been awarded full costs by the Mahon/Planning Tribunal, as well as others:

Mr Gogarty had been seeking €3.5m in costs. Elsewhere, Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern was awarded costs in relation to his evidence in May 1999 about efforts he made to establish to truth of Mr Gogarty’s claims. Mr Ahern had been seeking €269,000.

Others awarded costs today include financier Dermot Desmond, RTE and the Independent Radio and Television Commission.

Awarding full costs to all parties today, tribunal chairman Alan Mahon said the authority for deciding on the level of pay-outs to be made rested with the taxing master of the High Court.