Bertie's money gets curiouser and curiouser
While Bertie Ahern's statement on the Beresford house transactions appeared to answer several of the questions that had arisen, an analysis of the private interview he gave to the Planning tribunal lawyers deepens his problems. By Vincent Browne
Bertie's money has been exhausted as a campaign issue, but it has not gone away and the transcript of his evidence in private session with lawyers from the Planning tribunal on Thursday, 5 April last gives rise to troubling questions for him. If he is re-elected Taoiseach he could be derailed by the Tribunal's public session, when he is certain to face the most exacting examination.
In particular, the following issues arise:
1. The bank loan
On 27 December 1993, after he and his friends had returned to his constituency office, St Luke's in Drumcondra, from Leopardstown races, he received a total of £22,500 from friends. He said on RTÉ on Monday 25 September last: “They knew, a good few of them knew that I had taken out a loan with AIB in O'Connell St to settle my legal bills [to do with his marriage separation]. I had taken out the loan so I actually used the loan to settle the bills.”
But he didn't use the money to pay off the £19,000 bank loan he had obtained to pay his legal bills. He told the tribunal he lodged the money he had received from his friends in a special savings account. In fact he did not start paying off that bank loan until June 1995, some 18 months later and during that time he allowed it to accumulate interest when interest rates were very high. In fact he had £73,000 at the time but still opted to retain the bank loan, which ran for two years. In explanation for this he said: “I just wanted recorded I had a loan, that I paid the loan.”
2. The £50,000 in savings
Another surprising feature of his financial arrangements had to do with the £50,000 savings he said he accumulated between 1987 and 1993. He did not operate a bank account during this period and therefore retained this money in cash in his safe in St Luke's.
In December 1993 he opened a bank account but still retained the £50,000 in cash in his safe, when he could have been earning interest on the sum again at a time of high interest rates. He said his wife, Miriam, knew of these savings (“I mean my wife knew that I had the money and what I had. We were upfront on those issues”), so there is curiosity why he retained the money in cash, when he could have been earning interest in it. He explained: “To be honest with you, the last thing I was interested in in early-1994 was interest.”
Des O'Neill put it to him that the £50,000 he saved from 1987 to 1994 was about 50 per cent of his salary. His explanation was he had very low outgoings, he lived modestly, he had a ministerial car, he lived in a one-room apartment in St Luke's. He said: “I am not a big eater of meat or wine. I'm into matches and pints.” His surprise was he had not saved more: “From my position I'm looking for the 80,000, where's it gone. That's what I think I should be investigating”.
It was put to him that this £50,000 was an enormous sum to be retaining in a safe. He said: “I had a tank of a safe in St Luke's.” Des O'Neill said nobody was able to confirm to the tribunal that they ever saw large sums of money either in the safe in St Luke's or the safe in the Department of Finance (he was Minister for Finance at the time).
3. The Manchester whip-around
Contrary to the impression he gave the Dáil last September and October, there were not 25 donors at the function in Manchester at which he got £8,000, but only half a dozen.
4. The house in Beresford Avenue
At his meeting with Micheál Wall, the Manchester businessman, in St Luke's on 3 December 1994, three days before it was expected he would become Taoiseach for the first time (this would have been in coalition with Labour under Dick Spring but this never transpired because Dick Spring called off the deal the following Monday), Micheál Wall said he would purchase the house in Beresford Avenue, which he (Micheál Wall) and Celia Larkin (Bertie's then partner) had inspected and that he would “put in” £30,000 for the refurbishment of the house. Bertie said he would contribute £50,000 towards the refurbishment – this was after Bertie had agreed to rent the property from Micheál Wall.
It seems extraordinary that Micheál Wall would agree to invest £30,000 in the refurbishment of a four-year-old house that he was merely going to rent. It seems also extraordinary that Bertie Ahern would offer to invest £50,000 in the refurbishment of a house that he was not about to own, even if some of the refurbishments would be removed to another home, were he to leave after the rental period had expired.
Micheál Wall produced the £30,000stg from a briefcase and Bertie put it in the safe in his office. A few days later, Celia Larkin opened two bank accounts in her own name and put the £30,000 into one and the £50,000 into the other. This happened on 5 December, the following Monday. But on 19 January, Celia Larkin moved the £50,000 to another account and then on 27 January the money was withdrawn in cash and deposited again in Bertie's safe at St Luke's.
Then Bertie changed some of this or all of this £50,000 into sterling and his explanation for this was: “I was going to give it all or partially back to Mick Wall.” But it is not at all clear what he owed Micheál Wall at the time, unless it had to do with the refurbishment of the house, in which case there would have been no need to change the money into sterling for it would have had to be changed back again into Irish punts to pay for the refurbishments.
5. Micháel Wall's will
And then there is the curious matter of Micheál Wall's will. Micheál Wall was involved in a very serious accident in Manchester in 1995, after which he made a will in which he left the Beresford Avenue house to Bertie Ahern. The tribunal was of the suspicion that this suggested that Bertie had been the owner of the house all along and Micheál Wall merely the “front”, since the nature of their relationship was not such as to explain such lavish generosity, especially since Micháel Wall had a family of his own, including grandchildren.
5. The value of the house
The tribunal worked out that Micháel Wall actually lost money on the house at a time when property prices were rising rapidly. This again contrasted with a previous statement by Bertie that Micheál Wall made a handsome profit on the house.
6. Tax liability
In his statements on this issue in September and October, Bertie Ahern said he was assured there was no tax liability arising from the monies he received. However in an interview with the Sunday Independent, published on 13 May, he said: “As I explained last September, I was professionally advised on possible tax issues relating to the payments. To avoid any ambiguities or misinterpretations I have since ensured that an independent tax adviser, on my behalf, has provided all details to the Revenue. Indeed on his advice I made a provisional payment to cover any liability which could arise. I understand this was accepted by the Revenue, pending final agreement to such liability.”
This give rise to other questions.
It appears he did not make full disclosure of all of this at the time to the Revenue Commissioners, which itself is a problem. It also flatly contradicts assurances he gave the Dáil last September and October. It also emerges that instead of there being 25 donors at Manchester, there were only six, which may give rise to other implications.