Bertie Ahern - The Tangled Web
The finances crisis from Bertie Ahern now threatens to destroy his career, even though this is not yet publicly appreciated. For evidence is emerging that he got far more money when he was Minister for Finance than so far has been disclosed unravels Bertie Ahern's yarn-spinning. By Vincent Browne
I Curiouser and Curiouser
This is building up to be the most serious personal crisis a sitting Taoiseach ever had to face. Bit by bit evidence is emerging that Bertie Ahern got substantially more money than he has so far acknowledged, in the period 1993-1995, during part of which time he was Minister for Finance.
His claims that £30,000 sterling that emerged in his and Celia Larkin's accounts in 1995 had been purchased by him in early 1995 are now shown to be implausible. This is because of his concealment from the Tribunal of these sterling transactions, the contradictory explanations he has offered for purchasing sterling in early 1995 and, most tellingly, the absence of any bank record of any such sterling purchase (see accompanying story on page).
It is evident also that the Tribunal has doubts about his claims to have obtained £8,000 sterling at a function in Manchester and what is known as “the second good will loan” from friends in October 1994 of £16,500. There is a suspicion that the lodgement of this composite amount, which on the basis of plausible currency calculations came to exactly Stg£25,000 on the day in question, 16 October 1994, are monies obtained from a source not identified so far.
The Tribunal also seems to have doubts about the true origin of the approximately £30,000 sterling that allegedly came from Michael Wall in cash on 5 December 1994
There are also suspicions surrounding the withdrawal of £50,000 in cash on 19 January 1995 from an account in the name of Celia Larkin, but operated for the benefit of Bertie Ahern.
All these suspicions are compounded by the manner in which Bertie Ahern dealt with the Tribunal. He concealed, for instance, from the Tribunal for a period of almost two and a half years that several of the transactions the Tribunal was asking about involved foreign currencies (See ‘Delayed Discovery' on page 22).
This recent module of the Planning Tribunal is merely the start of its public hearings on Bertie Ahern's finances. There will be a further sub-module on the non-sterling donations given to Bertie Ahern and a further module on the issues surrounding the purchase of his home at 44 Beresford Avenue, Drumcondra. There may be a further hearing on the issue of Bertie Ahern's obstruction of or non-cooperation with the Tribunal. The sub-module dealing with the non-sterling transactions is likely to focus, among the issues, on the IR£50,000 savings which Bertie Ahern managed to accumulate during a period in which he operated no bank account and was paying approximately IR£20,000 a year on maintenance from a net salary of little over IR£30,000. Also the “good will donations” from friends, first in December 1993 and then in October 1994.
The story about the purchase of the house at 44 Beresford Avenue, Drumcondra is itself curious.
II Beresford House
Michael Wall, a friend of Bertie Ahern from Manchester, claims he had decided to buy a house in Dublin in the middle of 1994. He discussed this with Bertie Ahern and they agreed that Michael Wall would buy a house and Bertie Ahern would rent it. But the decision to buy the house seems to have been taken suddenly, for it is evident that neither Michael Wall nor Bertie Ahern had seen the inside of the house before Michael Wall had placed a booking deposit of IR£3,000 to purchase it.
Furthermore, still before either had seen the house from the inside and clearly long before they could have obtained professional advice about it (other than the advice and observations of Celia Larkin who had seen the house), they decided that there should be extensive structural changes and refurbishments. This was even though this was a relatively new house (four years old). They decided structural work to the tune of Stg£30,000, which Michael Wall was to fund, should be undertaken and refurbishment to the tune of IR£50,000, which Bertie Ahern was to fund.
And in anticipation of this bizarre arrangement, Michael Wall brought over from Manchester in a brief case Stg£30,000 in cash on 3 December 1994. Michael Wall's Stg£30,000 (approximately – and there is a lot of controversy over this “approximately”) was placed in one account in the name of Celia Larkin and Bertie Ahern's IR£50,000 was placed in another account.
In his discovery to the Tribunal Bertie Ahern made no reference to the fact that Michael Wall had handed him this Stg£30,000, or that there was any sterling involved in the transaction, or that IR£50,000 was placed in an account in the name of Celia Larkin for his benefit.
His dealings with the Tribunal are itself grounds for wonderment.
III The Manchester “hot” shots
Bertie Ahern cannot identify who was at the function in Manchester where he claims he got Stg£8,000, although he claimed to know half of the 20 people present well. He has changed his story about the 1 October 1994 lodgement he made of this money and of a second “good will loan” from Dublin friends. The Tribunal clearly suspects he got Stg£25,000 from somewhere and this was what made up the 11 October 1994 lodgement.
The surrounding circumstances of the lodgement made on the 11 October 1994 into Bertie Ahern's account at AIB Upper O'Connell St Dublin of IR£24,838.49 is one of the more curious elements to emerge from the Tribunal's recent proceedings. Clearly, the Tribunal suspects that Bertie Ahern's story that he received Stg£8,000 from a group in Manchester and IR£16,500 from a group of Irish friends is implausible in several respects. And furthermore, there is a strong suspicion that the lodgement made on 11 October 1994 was of Stg£25,000 exactly, obtained for a source that has not been disclosed.
At the Tribunal for the first time Bertie Ahern changed his story about the Manchester payments. He said the event at which he got approximately Stg£8,000 would have been around April or May 1994, instead of September/October 1994 as he previously had stated. He could not recall whether he was in Manchester at the time for the end of the 1993/94 football season or the start of the 1994/95 football season.
About the event in the Four Seasons hotel he said: “It was a meal with a group, a ‘hot' group, all Irish people, most of them in Manchester for a considerable time, who I have met many times before and since and it was a meal that, was informal but still a question and answer session, talking about the Irish economy, talking about the country”. He said there were about 20 people there. “I would have known some of them very well, but I certainly (would have known) half of them very well.” They ate in the hotel restaurant. They did not have a separate room. Other unconnected people were in the restaurant as well. There was no question of him standing up and making a speech. It was a dinner table conversation with 20 people.
After the meal and the question and answer session they went to the public bar in the hotel and there he was approached by the late Tim Kilrowe, the owner of the hotel and one of those at the meal, and was told the people at the meal wanted to make a contribution to him. He was as handed an envelope containing about Stg£8,000. He put the money in his pocket and did not open the envelope until he got back to Dublin on the Sunday evening, two days later.
Asked about the group at the meal he said: “They all had an interest in Ireland, they are all successful business men who have employed a lot of people in Ireland and employed a lot of Irish people when they emigrated. So they are a considerably important group of people and I spent time with them, through respect for that and on other occasions they would have given me gifts (he mentioned Waterford Glass and a book on De Valera)”.
Later he said “Every one of these people was worth 50 million plus at the time”. Some of them had corporate boxes and Old Trafford, the Manchester United stadium. He said he had been in their boxes on a number of occasions but hastened to add: “even though I tend not to watch matches in boxes, we might gather in the box beforehand but they are business people”.
His recollection was that the donations were in denominations of Stg£50 notes, which suggests either that these people regularly went around with Stg£50 notes in their pockets (if all 20 contributed, the average contribution would have been Stg£400, eight Stg£50 notes.
Given this deal of information about these individuals, all very wealthy, all Irish people who had retained close connection with Ireland, living in Manchester, half of them well known to Bertie Ahern, some of them with boxes at Old Trafford, it is surprising they have not been identified.
Whereas at some stages during the Tribunal's enquiries he was certain the amount he got from the Manchester group was an even Stg£8,000 and that he had lodged that amount on 11 October 1994, along with the second “good will donation” of IR£16,500, he later changed that story. He said the money he had got in Manchester was approximately Stg£8,000, that he might have added or subtracted from it before making the lodgement and that he may have added or subtracted from the £16,500. This vagueness followed the disclosure that the sum lodged, IR£24,838.49 could not possibly have been made up of the amounts claimed.
He said at one stage he had made the lodgement at the “first available opportunity” but then said he made the lodgement some time after he had obtained the money, maybe several months after.
He was certain he made the lodgement himself at AIB Upper O'Connell St on 11 October 1994. As it happened Celia Larkin was in the bank on the same day dealing with another transaction but he was certain she did not make the lodgement on his behalf.
The AIB branch records show that although the average sterling lodgement around that period was about Stg£2,000, as it happens, on 11 October 1994 the sterling lodgements amounted to IR£27,491.95. And, as it happens, the IR£24,838.49 corresponded to exactly Stg£25,000, on the exchange rate on that date, given certain likely permutations.
IV Buying money
The most damaging recent revelation centres around the extraordinary claim to have purchased Stg£30,000 in early 1995.
It emerged late in the Tribunal's enquiries into Bertie Ahern's finances that, according to himself, he had purchased £30,000 sterling between 19 January 1995 and 15 June 1995. This discovery emerged two and a half years after the Tribunal first asked Bertie Ahern to make a full disclosure of his financial transactions.
He gave starkly different reasons for that Stg£30,000 purchase, the latest and the most curious right at the beginning of his evidence to the Tribunal on Thursday 13 September last. He said then:
“Because I changed my mind about proceeding with 44 Beresford (the house his friend Michael Wall was in the process of purchasing to rent to Bertie Ahern) and was now actively looking at acquiring different properties, I decided that I should return Mick Wall's contribution to him. In that context part of the (IR£)50,000 that was withdrawn on the 19th January (1995) for its then intended use in refurbishment of the house... was actually used to purchase sterling, with the intention of returning it to Mick Wall in the light of my then change of mind. Eventually I decided I would not acquire any other house, I recall that after Mick Wall was injured in a car accident, Celia Larkin and I visited him in Manchester. During the visit we discussed the position in relation to Beresford and that we would proceed with the conservatory and refurbishment work. I had thus reverted to the original arrangement with Mick Wall, hence the return of Mick Wall's contribution did not take place”.
Initially he had said he had withdrawn the IR£50,000 because it would be easier for Celia Ahern to access the funds for the refurbishment of the house, even though, he said, the cash was lodged in a safe at his constituency office, St Luke's, and she did not have a key to the safe. While, with the funds in an account in her name, where it had been prior to 19 January 1995, she had easy access to the money.
He had given an entirely different account of why he had withdrawn this money from the account opened in Celia Larkin's name when interviewed in private at the Tribunal on 5 April last. He said then his withdrawal of the money in cash was to facilitate the refurbishment of the house, to hand over his money to Michael Wall to enable him to get on with the work they had agreed to undertake on the house. He said he used part of this money to purchase Stg£30,000 to assist Michael Wall, because Michael Wall dealt in sterling.
He had said on 5 April at the private session with Tribunal lawyers: “There was only one reason. On the 6th December (1994) I didn't become Taoiseach... so when I took out the IR£50,000 at the end of January (1995) I was going to give the money to Mr Wall, let him, to Michael Wall, and let him look after the whole operation because I hadn't gone to see the house. I was going to let him and Celia look after it.”
He was unable to explain how changing money into sterling would assist Michael Wall in purchasing materials in the Republic of Ireland and paying builders here. But then at the Tribunal's public hearings on 13 September he gave this strikingly different and contradictory account, saying he had intended backing out of the house deal.
Asked if he had told either Celia Larkin or Michael Wall of this change of mind at the time he said he had not. He said however he had been looking at other houses and had been in contact with estate agents, although, his “life partner” at the time, Celia Larkin was unaware of this. He said he was now (13 September) recalling this because he had been contacted by “a number of people close to me” who reminded him he had been looking at other houses in the early part of 1995.
It was put to him by Tribunal counsel, Des O'Neill: “But that can't possibly be an explanation for you buying 30,000 pounds sterling Mr Ahern. I'd just like you to think about that. You have offered it...”
Bertie Ahern responded: “I can't think of any other reason I would could do it. If I want to put that, well maybe I can speculate. But if I was going to, he had 30,000, if I wasn't going to go ahead with the project I would have had to give him that money back. Now I didn't implement that, we know I didn't implement it, so frankly I used it for two different reasons and we know the different reasons I implemented. But you are asking me what would I have done in the early part of 1995 precisely now why I did that. I am trying looking at really two and maybe three reasons why I think I could have done that and I can't, I can't be any more precise” (see transcript Day 760, Q 502).
Asked why, if he thought Michael Wall should be given back the Stg£30,000 he had, allegedly, handed over on 5 December 1994, why did he not arrange to have that done from the account in which Celia Larkin had opened specifically to receive the money, he said it was all the same money (he had previously insisted it was not all the same money, that he had never received any money from Michael Wall).
Asked why Michael wall needed to be “paid back” at all, since, according to Bertie Ahern, Michael Wall had never given him any money, he said he just thought this should be done, even though Michael Wall might have wished to continue with the refurbishment of the house.
The telling feature of this supposed Stg£30,000 purchase between 19 January 1995 and 15 June 1995 is that there is no record in the bank of any such purchase during the period in question.
V Delayed Discovery
For two and a half years Bertie Ahern concealed important information from the Tribunal. The following is a chronology of Bertie Ahern's tortuous dealings with the Tribunal.
15 October 2004: Tribunal wrote to Bertie Ahern's solicitors, seeking narrative statement. The letter recited the allegations made by Tom Gilmartin that Owen O'Callaghan had told him that he (Owen O'Callaghan) had paid Bertie Ahern the sums of IR£50,000 and IR£30,000 for “blocking the Green Properties PLC from obtaining special tax designation for the development of Blanchardstown”.
26 October 2004: Reply from Bertie Ahern's solicitors stating they had no objection in principle to an order for discovery being made and seeking certain clarifications. The reply also confirmed that Bertie Ahern would be furnishing a statement as requested and would be repeating his repudiation of the allegation that he ever received any monies from Owen O'Callaghan.
12 November 2004: Bertie Ahern's solicitors suggested that the Tribunal's discovery order should be limited to a period from 1 January 1989 to 31 December 1992 – this was to cover the period during which it was alleged the payments had been made. The letter also proposed that the order be limited to payments of IR£30,000 and over.
(Had the Tribunal agreed to this proposal, none of the transactions that are now in controversy would have been covered. Bertie Ahern had no documentation from 1987 to December 1993 because he did not operate a bank account during this period.)
20 November 2004: The Tribunal replied saying the time frame covered by the discovery order would be 1 January 1988 to 31 December 1995.
24 November 2004: Order for discovery of “all documents and records in his possession, power or control relating to all accounts held in any financial institution, whether within or outside the State in his own name, either individually or jointly, for his benefit or into which he made lodgements of money or into which he caused or procured lodgements of money to be made or lodgements of money were made for his benefit”. The order specified it should be complied with by 11 January 2005.
10 January 2005: Solicitors for Bertie Ahern wrote to the Tribunal requesting an extension of time to comply with the order of 31 January 1995 and this was agreed.
7 February 2005: Bertie Ahern's affidavit of discovery was provided to the Tribunal. An accompanying letter from the solicitors stated Bertie Ahern did not operate a bank account from the time of his marriage separation in 1987 until December 1993. The letter also made the following mention: “I am also instructed that in December 1994 our client transferred funds from his accounts in AIB Upper O'Connell St into the account of his then partner, Ms Celia Larkin”. (This failed to acknowledge that the monies transferred to Celia Larkin's account were to be used for the benefit of Bertie Ahern.)
25 February 2005: The Tribunal responded to Bertie Ahern's solicitors. It stated: “The Tribunal has now formed the view that it is necessary for the purpose of their inquiries that your client now make discovery and produce at the Tribunal all documentation in his power, possession or control (in relation to his financial transactions)”, not later than Friday 27 March 2005. (An order for discovery requires only an Affidavit setting out the documents in question. A production order requires that the documents themselves be produced).
27 May 2005: The Tribunal wrote to Bertie Ahern solicitors seeking Bertie Ahern's authorisation for AIB and Permanent TSB to release relevant documentation. Attached to that letter was a schedule of his lodgements that he had discovered on 7 February: the IR£24,838.49 (what was said to be the second goodwill loan plus the Manchester payment) and the IR£19,142.92 (the deposit of Stg£20,000 in December 1995), both involving foreign exchange transactions but the Tribunal was unaware at the time that foreign currency was involved (see panel on lodgements, page 20).
10 June 2005: The solicitors enclosed the written authority of Bertie Ahern, directed at AIB in respect of these lodgements.
25 October 2005: The Tribunal wrote to the solicitors enclosing the documentation obtained from AIB (which Bertie Ahern had already obtained anyway) seeking an affidavit outlining the sources of the cash lodgements identified and answers to specific questions arising from that. The Tribunal requested that this information be provided by 30 November 2005.
(The Tribunal had no power to require a witness to provide a narrative statement in relation to any matter but in the absence of that the Tribunal could require a witness to give evidence about the mater in question at a public hearing. The Tribunal did have powers to order discovery and production of documents.)
A year had elapsed from the time the Tribunal had first asked Bertie Ahern to provide a full narrative statement and to discover documents and produce some of these.
3 March 2006: The Tribunal wrote to the solicitors noting that no reply had been received to the letter of 25 October 2005. It gave a further period until 24 March 2006 for the reply to be forthcoming.
27 March 2006: The solicitors responded to the Tribunal, enclosing the Affidavit of Discovery sworn by Bertie Ahern, producing four files of documents.
30 March 2006: The Tribunal responded to the solicitors pointing out that Bertie Ahern still had not furnished the information in relation to various cash lodgements to his accounts prioritised in its letter of 3 March 2006. It noted that his affidavit of discovery record these lodgements but no information was provided on the source of these lodgements. It also noted that the total lodgements in question came to IR£108,981.41 between December 1993 and December 1995, during part of which time he was Minister for Finance.
The letter went on to say that if it could not get the information from Bertie Ahern that it required by way of a voluntary and private process, then it would go into public hearing, as it was empowered to do, and ask the questions there in relation to the cash lodgements. The letter went on to pose seven specific questions in relation to these lodgements. (Counsel for the Tribunal said: “it was clear at that point in time on 30th March 2006 the inquiries which the Tribunal had been conducting since
October 2005 had led them nowhere as regards establishing what the source of your accounts were in connection with large cash lodgements” – Bertie Ahern agreed in evidence: “That's correct”. Question 218 Day 756).
The letter extended the time for a voluntary statement on the source of the lodgements to 21 April 2006 and said that if this was not available by then it would move to a public hearing.
21 April 2006: The Tribunal received from the solicitor a report compiled by the accountant, Des Peelo, acting for Bertie Ahern containing detailed information about the lodgements that concerned the Tribunal.
In relation to the lodgement of IR£24,838.49 made on 11 October 1994, it outlined how Bertie Ahern received approximately Stg£8,000 from a group he had addressed at a dinner in Manchester. And the balance of IR£16,500 was obtained from Paddy Reilly (IR£3,500), Joe Burke (IR£3,500), Barry English (IR£5,000) and Dermot Carew (IR£4,500). It stated that this lodgement was made personally by Bertie Ahern.
Re the lodgement of IR£19,142.92 on 1 December 1995, this was, the report stated, from a return of monies from his then partner, Celia Larkin. It recited how Bertie Ahern had given Celia Larkin IR£50,000 for the refurbishment of 44 Beresford Avenue. Approximately IR£30,000 was expended on the furnishing and the IR£19,142.92 was the balance outstanding from the IR£50,000.
The Des Peelo report made no reference to the subsequent claim by Bertie Ahern that the IR£19,142.92 lodgement was in fact Stg£20,000. Neither was the any reference to the fact that although £50,000 was transferred to Celia Larkin's account on 5 December 1994, the entire amount was withdrawn in cash on 19 January 1995 and returned to Bertie Ahern. Nor any reference to the supposed fact that from this £50,000 cash, Stg£30,000 was purchased, nor that of the £11,743.74 transferred to Celia Larkin on 15 June 1995, £10,000 was in sterling.
3 May 2006: The Tribunal wrote to the solicitors asking a number of specific questions because it regarded the Des Peelo report incomplete. At the same time the Tribunal started to make enquires of Celia Larkin and she responded with further information.
6 June 2006: The solicitors responded to the Tribunal letter of 3 May and gave answers to questions and there followed further exchanges between the parties.
26 July 2006: The solicitors sent an 18 page letter to the Tribunal expressing a variety of concerns and then responding to questions asked by the Tribunal. This was followed by a lengthy reply setting out the history of its dealings with Bertie Ahern
22 September 2006: The Irish Times published confidential Tribunal material and this led to further exchanges between the parties.
29 January 2007: Letter from the Tribunal to the solicitors notes that although the Des Peelo report had stated that the IR£50,000 that had been transferred to an account in the name of Celia Larkin on 5 December 1994 and that a substantial proportion of this had been used for the refurbishment of the house at Beresford, in fact, the IR£50,000 had been withdrawn on 19 January 1995. The expenditure on the house was not funded from this IR£50,000 but from an account in her name which she had opened on 22 June 1995 at AIB in Upper O'Connell St, into which lodgements were made of IR£9,684.71 from Michael Wall's money and IR£11,743.74 from funds provided by Bertie Ahern. The letter then set out 11 questions to be answered.
27 February 2007: The solicitors replied to the Tribunal answering the questions. In answer to the question why Bertie Ahern had withdrawn the IR£50,000 in cash on 19 January 1995 from the account in the name of Celia Larkin it was stated: It became apparent to Mr Ahern around this time that it would be more convenient for the monies to be held in cash”. In answer to why he had not reinvested the £50,000 in a deposit account, the reply stated: “This was a matter of personal choice for Mr Ahern”. There was no reference in the letter to the fact that several of the transactions referred to were in sterling.
There then followed an invitation to meet with the Tribunal legal team privately and this took place on 5 April (Holy Thursday) at the offices of Bertie Ahern's solicitor, at Frank Ward solicitors, Ormond Quay, Dublin. It was only at that interview that the foreign currency transactions were disclosed. The Tribunal continued to insist that in spite of the volume of information communicated on behalf of Bertie Ahern that it still had not obtained information on the source of various lodgements. This was after a process which had gone on from 15 October 2004 to 5 April 2007, nearly two and a half years.
From documents that emerged through the discovery process with AIB, it emerged that from an early date Bertie Ahern had identified precisely those transactions that were to become the focus of the Tribunal's attention, those involving the foreign currencies. In respect of none of them was there any back up documentation to show the source of three funds. All were large cash transactions. He said at the Tribunal he identified three because they involved large cash amounts but it was also the case there were other transactions involving large cash amounts which he did not identify for special inquiry with his bank.
On 24 January 1995 he obtained from AIB back up documents to transactions but failed to disclose them in his affidavit of discovery of two weeks later (Day 757 Q 189). This was not discovered until 27 March 2006, more than a year later.
11 October 1994: lodgement of IR£24,838.49 to his account
5 December 1994: lodgement of IR£28,772.90 to an account opened by Celia Larkin
15 January-14 June 1995: purchase of Stg£30,000
15 June 1995: lodgement of IR£11,743.74 to an account opened in the name of Celia Larkin
1 December 1995: lodgement of IR£19,142.92 to his account