Read Bertie Ahern: The Man Who Blew the Boom: Power & Money Online

Authors: Colm Keena

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Bertie Ahern: The Man Who Blew the Boom: Power & Money (8 page)

BOOK: Bertie Ahern: The Man Who Blew the Boom: Power & Money
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O’Connor’s version of events was backed up by some of his colleagues in
NCB
with whom, the tribunal was told, he discussed the matter before deciding to make the payment, and who also gave evidence. An odd aspect of the payment was that the firm didn’t simply make a political donation and record it in its books as such: instead a fake invoice was produced by a company called Euro Workforce Ltd, and a payment was issued by
NCB
on foot of the invoice.
VAT
was even paid, so that the £5,000 donation became £6,050 when
VAT
was included. Euro Workforce Ltd was a personnel company with an address at 25 Merrion Square, Dublin. It had formerly been owned by Richardson and Collins together with Des Maguire. The bogus invoice was found in the
NCB
files with O’Connor’s signature on it, so he obviously knew about the bogus invoice. He told the tribunal that he had since forgotten about that aspect of the matter.

O’Connor was closely questioned on his evidence that he and the firm were anxious to conceal the fact that they were making a political donation to Ahern and that this explained the bogus invoice. It was pointed out that in 1994 and 1995 the firm had attended the annual fund-raising dinners in Kilmainham for Ahern’s constituency operation and had written cheques to the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann and treated the matter in the
NCB
books as a normal political donation. O’Connor said the difference was the more private, focused nature of the Richardson fund-raising exercise, but Ahern said the way in which
NCB
had treated the £5,000 payment indicated that it was other than a normal political donation.

Interestingly, in the light of what will be shown later, Ahern told the tribunal that he had asked his constituency treasurer to check on this matter and find him copies of the
NCB
cheques made out to the cumann. The constituency people also went through the records of the annual dinners at Kilmainham and found references to
NCB
attending in 1994 and 1995. Ahern was given copies of these records, which he forwarded to the tribunal. They also found a letter from Joe Burke to
NCB
, dated November 1995, in which Burke, the chairperson of what was called the house committee (the house being St Luke’s), wrote to
NCB
saying he was delighted that they would be attending the dinner. Ahern also forwarded this document to the tribunal.

The payment to Ahern of £5,000 was a bank draft made out to Richardson, which the tribunal was able to find in the bank’s archives. According to Richardson he bought the draft with the money that had come from
NCB
. He said that, while he and Brennan dealt with many of the cash donors to the dig-out, he personally dealt with O’Connor and that the payment was, unusually, not in cash.

While O’Connor said he was not a personal friend of Ahern’s, he had known him since they worked together during the currency crisis of the later months of 1992. The international markets were betting against the Irish pound, and Ahern, as Minister for Finance, was the person who had to decide when, or if, it would be devalued. Vast amounts of money were involved, and Ahern eventually devalued the currency. When O’Connor gave evidence he said that he presumed that when Richardson had called on him it was in connection with his work on the currency crisis.

O’Connor, who had worked on currency matters while employed as an economist, offered his services
gratis
to Ahern because his position with
NCB
gave him an insight into what the currency markets were thinking. O’Connor told the tribunal: ‘I worked with him. I admired what he was doing. I liked him.’ He also said he later had dealings with Ahern, who spoke at conferences and seminars at which
NCB
was trying to persuade overseas investors to buy Irish stocks.

‘I am sure I would have assumed that
NCB
was approached because of the fairly regular contact I had with Mr Ahern over the previous year or eighteen months,’ O’Connor said. Based on documents the tribunal showed him he agreed that he had met Ahern within weeks of the payment as part of his business dealings with him as Minister for Finance. O’Connor did not agree with Ahern’s evidence that he had thanked O’Connor for the loan. He said he did not recall being thanked and that it could not have happened that he was thanked for a personal contribution to Ahern’s personal finances.

This convoluted saga had the tribunal scratching its head, and an in-depth trawl of the matter was carried out to see if any definitive money trail could be established. The more the tribunal investigated it the less clear it became. In time it emerged that the £5,000 draft wasn’t paid for with
NCB
money at all but with money that came from an account in the name of a company called Roevin Ireland Ltd, which had at one point owned Workforce (later Euro Workforce). Richardson told the tribunal that he had had an involvement with Roevin and that, as part of the arrangements made after the business closed, he was given the right to the money lodged in the account. It was, he said, his money. To add further murkiness to the whole affair, the company had in turn been owned at one time by a parent company, Doctus, which was based in, of all places, Manchester.

The Roevin account was opened on 12 October 1992 with a lodgement of £39,000. There was a later withdrawal of £2,000, but otherwise there were no transactions up to 22 December 1993, when it was used to buy the bank draft given to Ahern.

The tribunal was never able to establish where the
NCB
money went after it was paid to Euro Workforce Ltd. O’Connor was asked if, to accommodate
NCB
’s desire for confidentiality, he had agreed with Richardson that a ‘contra’ arrangement (whereby one entity would pay money to Ahern, and
NCB
would pay a similar amount to another entity, but the two transactions would not be joined up or directly linked in any way) would be made. ‘There was no such discussion,’ said O’Connor.

O’Connor also said if he had been asked to make a personal charitable donation to Ahern he would have made it with his own funds. He said that, to his knowledge, no political donations had been made between his becoming managing director of
NCB
in 1991 and his being approached in December 1993 by Richardson.

The essential point was that the tribunal wasn’t able to establish a money trail from
NCB
to Ahern’s account. If Richardson had wanted to he could have said the draft was part of his contribution to the dig-out, and O’Connor would never have been dragged into the tribunal’s inquiries in the first place. This would have saved Ahern a lot of trouble.

Richardson had contacted O’Connor in 2005, and they met in the Berkeley Court Hotel. This was before the tribunal had been told of any dig-out or of any contribution from O’Connor. O’Connor was told that the tribunal was inquiring into Ahern’s finances and that Richardson was helping him track down various payments. Richardson asked O’Connor if he recalled a payment in the early 1990s; O’Connor said he did. Richardson put a date on the payment, December 1993, and asked O’Connor for his recollection. O’Connor said that he had no documents, that it was a matter for
NCB
and that he no longer worked for the firm. He told the tribunal that Richardson never mentioned the idea that the payment was part of any whip-around for Ahern personally. After the meeting O’Connor spoke on the phone to his former colleagues in
NCB
, Chris McHugh and Graham O’Brien. ‘Their recollection was really precisely the same as mine,’ the tribunal was told. At this time, he said, there was no indication that Richardson had in mind a different description of the payment to O’Connor.

The following summer the men met again. Richardson called O’Connor, and they met briefly in the Radisson Hotel, close to O’Connor’s home. O’Connor said Richardson was

very keen to get the documentation that would establish how the payment was made, because, as he explained it to me, efforts were being made to put together material to explain Ahern’s finances . . . I think it was at that meeting that I got the first inkling that my recollection wasn’t the only version of events, as it were. Because he did say to me, you know, ‘That’s your recollection, and presumably you will be asked and you will have to give them your recollection.’ I wasn’t told what the alternative version was about.

O’Connor told the tribunal he didn’t think he was told anything about the payment being a loan to Ahern or about it being part of a dig-out. ‘Because I think my surprise was total when I heard that first in the interview with Bryan Dobson.’

This differed from Richardson’s evidence, which was to the effect that, at this second meeting, he made it clear to O’Connor that he believed the payment had been a personal donation to Ahern. When this was put to O’Connor he said he wasn’t ‘absolutely sure that there wasn’t some suggestion that, well, we don’t think it was
NCB
. I just don’t recall that.’

In the wake of Ahern’s interview with Dobson, and without notice, O’Connor got a short letter from Ahern thanking him for the loan he had ‘kindly extended to me all those years ago.’ Enclosed was a cheque from Ahern for €11,829 ‘in full and final settlement of the outstanding loan.’ O’Connor took legal advice and sent a note to the Department of the Taoiseach thanking Ahern for the cheque and informing him that he was writing to Richardson about the matter. ‘Best personal regards, Yours sincerely.’ In his letter to Richardson, O’Connor said he had received the cheque from Ahern. ‘As the Taoiseach says in his letter, this all took place a very long time ago. As I said to you when we spoke some time ago, the payment to which I believe the Taoiseach’s letter and cheque relate was made by
NCB
rather than by me personally.’ The payment was paid through Richardson, he wrote. ‘I do not want to presume as to how you dealt with it.’ He said he intended to hold Ahern’s cheque uncashed.

The tribunal barrister Des O’Neill asked O’Connor why he had not informed Ahern of his version of how the payment came about. O’Connor said it was because of personal considerations.

My primary instinct was, as far as was possible, given how public it was, to keep my head down and keep out of it. I didn’t want to get drawn into what was going to be . . . a political issue . . . I didn’t see that my personal interests or my privacy would be served by having that engagement with either Mr Ahern or Mr Richardson. I didn’t see that that would improve my position in any way. And all I was interested in, frankly, was my own position and the position of my family.

O’Neill put it to O’Connor that the Taoiseach had made a statement to the public, on television, to explain ‘an unusual set of circumstances’, and it was apparent to O’Connor ‘as a citizen that the explanation that was being given, insofar as you could test its veracity, was untrue.’ A consequence of O’Connor adopting the position he did was that the Taoiseach’s version of events went unchallenged, O’Neill said. O’Connor agreed. He said he didn’t want to be drawn into a political issue. He also agreed that he had not known at the time that the issue would eventually feature in a public sitting of the tribunal. O’Connor said his solicitor had in fact argued in private correspondence with the tribunal that the matter did not fall within its terms of reference and so should not be investigated in public.

During one of his private interviews with the tribunal O’Connor said why he had chosen not to contact Richardson. ‘I didn’t see the point. I mean . . . this is politics, and I am not political . . . Whatever Bertie Ahern decides to say to try and save his political existence, that’s politics.’

Ahern’s counsel chose not to put any questions to O’Connor. Ahern later said this was because he considered O’Connor to be a friend. O’Connor’s legal representative never questioned Richardson, and O’Connor said he saw this as a matter for the tribunal. Richardson’s counsel, Jim O’Callaghan, did put questions to O’Connor, and O’Connor appeared at one point to become annoyed.

I did not have that personal relationship [with Ahern] . . . I did not know of his marital issues. To this day I don’t know how it can be even suggested that I might have been one of those people who might be approached . . . I would have been very surprised if I was approached. I did not know Gerry Brennan. Never met him. I had never heard of him. Mr Richardson knew me vaguely. How these two people could put my name on a list and then say that they came to me or one of them came to me with what I would have regarded as an extraordinary request—it didn’t happen.

When O’Callaghan put it to O’Connor that the circumstances concerning the method of payment indicated that it was a personal donation to Ahern, using
NCB
money, O’Connor replied: ‘That’s offensive and it’s absolute nonsense.’

The money lodged to Ahern’s account, which the tribunal was told arose from the first of the two dig-outs, comprised £15,000 in cash, the £5,000 draft and a cheque for £2,500. The cheque came from a company called Willdover Ltd, which was controlled by Richardson and which he used to invoice Fianna Fáil for his services as a full-time fund-raiser for the party, appointed by Ahern. In other words, the money Richardson said he gave Ahern as his contribution to the dig-out originated with Fianna Fáil, though it had become Richardson’s when paid to Willdover.

O’Connor’s evidence concerning his motive for authorising an
NCB
payment contradicted Ahern’s whole dig-out story; but it was his evidence concerning an aspect of his thinking when deciding to make the payment that would finish off Ahern. O’Connor was contacted by the tribunal in 2006, and on 16 October of that year he made a statement in which he said that Richardson had told him that he (Richardson) was ‘approaching four or five companies to request a contribution of £5,000’ from each of them. At a private interview with the tribunal nine days later O’Connor said he had a vague recollection that one of the companies mentioned might have been a competitor firm of stockbrokers. When giving evidence in November 2008 he amended this to say that Richardson might not have mentioned competitor firms being approached; rather, this may simply have been a worry on O’Connor’s part. The worry was that
NCB
might be at a disadvantage if it did not make a payment and a rival firm did.

BOOK: Bertie Ahern: The Man Who Blew the Boom: Power & Money
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