No Way Out for Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern faces political disgrace, a fate he doesn't deserve given his achievements on the economy and on Northern Ireland. But his explanations for the huge lodgements to his bank accounts are now not credible. And the discovery of building society accounts suggest not just that he got large sums of money from unknown sources but also that monies were diverted from the Fianna Fail coffers.
By Vincent Browne
Celia back centre stage
Celia Larkin remains central to Bertie's future. Her continued corroboration of his explanations concerning the huge amounts of money that went through his and her accounts in 1994 and 1995 is crucial to his survival. Not just his survival as Taoiseach but the survival of his reputation.
She was central to all his doings at that time (1993 to 1995 and beyond), and with the possible exception of Bertie's close associate, Des Richardson, probably only she knew the full story of his financial dealings. That she is now unavailable to discuss how to deal with the vicissitudes of the Planning Tribunal must add to the strain of the ordeal. Probably now only Des Richardson can tell the full truth, not Bertie's lawyers, certainly not his cabinet colleagues, not even his financial adviser, Des Peelo.
Bertie's own resilience is remarkable. He has been able to compartmentalise his life, the Tribunal matters in one compartment, his role as Taoiseach, leader of Fianna Fáil and his personal lives, all in quite separate compartments. And he is assisted by an absolute conviction he is innocent and that the tribulations he is enduring at the Tribunal are a gross injustice.
He keeps repeating “I never received anything from Owen O'Callaghan” and that is probably true. And for this reason he believes the Tribunal's scrutiny of his affairs is wrong and its focus on lodgements of money that have nothing to do with Owen O'Callaghan is unfair. The conviction in his righteousness is his major ally now, a conviction undisturbed by any misgivings about the alternative source of the monies that flowed through his accounts in 1993, 1994 and 1995.
His tribulations will intensify in the next while, not just because he is due to return to the Tribunal soon to complete the current session of evidence – at least two further multi-day sessions to come later – but by the return to the witness box of Celia.
Questions for Celia
The Tribunal has decided she has to return and among the questions she will be asked will be:
Where did she get the funds in January 2008 to pay off the £30,000 loan she got allegedly from a Fianna Fail building society account in 1993? If it is true she paid the interest in the loan as well as the principle, the total amount must have been in the region of €74,000 (if she got the funds recently to pay off this debt through the aegis of Bertie, then more trouble for Bertie).
Was it merely a coincidence that she paid off this debt just at the time that the Tribunal was enquiring into it and if it was not a coincidence what prompted her to make the payment then?
Did she discuss the crisis in the lives of her aged relatives and friend with her then “life partner”, as she herself described Bertie Ahern during her evidence before Christmas, and if so what advice and assistance did her then “life partner” offer (Bertie was then Minister for Finance, allegedly with £54,000 in savings and therefore was well in a position to assist her in her family crisis)?
How was it that she was confused about the circumstances in which she obtained the Stg£30,000 on Monday, 5 December 1993 before lodging it in a special account in her own bank, AIB, Upper O'Connell St (she first said she was given the money in a brief case in the office of the solicitor, Gerry Brennan, on the morning she lodged the money but changed this to say she first saw the £30,000 in bundles of cash the previous Saturday in Bertie Ahern's constituency office at St Luke's Drumcondra, and took the money from there on the Monday – if she had seen this huge bundle of cash on that Saturday she would hardly have forgotten it)?
With whom among the Trustees of St Luke's did she discuss the loan which, allegedly, she obtained from the Trustee account in the Irish Permanent Building Society in Drumcondra and was there any documentation drawn up in connection with the arrangement?
How was it she never mentioned this facility to her “life partner”, Bertie Ahern, at the time, all the more so since he had a direct interest in the St Luke's constituency account?
When did she find out for the first time that in January 1995 her “life partner” had unilaterally decided not to proceed with the renting of the house in Beresford Avenue that Michael Wall was to buy and in which she and Bertie were to live (Bertie claimed at one stage in his explanations for purchasing sterling in early 1995 that he was going to repay Michael Wall his £30,000 because he – Bertie – had changed his mind about renting the house but never told either Michael Wall or his “life partner” about this decision, which he later reversed – see below)?
What contact – direct or indirect – has she had with Bertie Ahern in recent months concerning the Tribunal, what was the nature of those contacts, what was discussed?
Celia Larkin is back on centre stage in this Bertie saga and the break in the relationship between them, very probably, is a further complicating factor in Bertie Ahern's difficulties. Celia Larkin was on the Bertie scene for quite some time.
Bertie Ahern met Philip Murphy at a book launch in 1986. Philip Murphy was an assistant manager at AIB in Upper O'Connell St at the time. Bertie was a front bench member of Fianna Fail which was then in opposition. Bertie and Philip Murphy got talking and Bertie asked the assistant bank manager if he could help a friend of his to get a loan. The friend was Celia Larkin. The loan was later arranged.
Philip Murphy told the Planning Tribunal this before last Christmas but didn't tell and wasn't asked what the loan was for or for how much.
But it was obvious from his account of his initial and later dealings with Bertie Ahern that he was more than willing to assist a politician who, as time went on, obviously was in the ascendant. Also, he was disposed to assisting Celia Larkin who maintained her account at Philip Murphy's branch for years afterwards and perhaps still does.
It is surprising therefore that when Celia Larkin needed funds urgently in 1993 she did not resort first to her “life partner” and, if that was unavailing, to her bank, which had been accommodating to her previously and which would have been pleased to be doing business with the partner of the then Minister for Finance.
The curious B/T Account
But then if the money in the building society account, the B/T account in the IPBS branch at Drumcondra, was for the benefit of Bertie Ahern, that, in effect if not in name, this was money accruing to him, whatever its original source, then there is hardly anything surprising about what happened – she was facilitated from the account of which her “life partner” was the beneficial owner.
Certainly that account was curious. According to Bertie Ahern, this account was for the funding of renovations of St Luke's, but, although substantial renovations were undertaken on St Luke's, no funding was used from this account. Then there is the very curious postal address that was placed on the account when it was first opened in the IPBS branch in Drumcondra. The postal address written on the form was c/o of the IPBS branch itself. In other words, no correspondence was to emanate from the branch in connection with the account. It is not at all clear why there would have been any concern, if the account was indeed for the upkeep of St Luke's, why correspondence would not have gone to St Luke's itself.
Also in his “discovery” of all the accounts with which he was associated, in response to one of the demands from the Tribunal, Bertie Ahern failed to “discover” this account and his explanation is that the money was not his, so it was irrelevant. But he discovered several other accounts which did not related to his personal finances, just to his constituency's finances, so why not this account?
And then there is the very curious lodgement of a cheque to help finance the November 1992 election from Davy's stockbrokers into this account. No plausible explanation for why this cheque was not lodged to the general election fund has been given.
A single series of bizarre occurrences might be explained as a mixture of mistakes and coincidences but a persistence of bizarre occurrences by now has far over-stretched any credibility.
As explained in the accompanying panel, the Tribunal's interest in Bertie Ahern's finances arises from an allegation by Tom Gilmartin that Owen O'Callaghan had claimed to have given bribes to Bertie Ahern totalling £80,000.
In the investigation of this claim the Tribunal asked Bertie Ahern to produce his bank statements for the period 1992 to 1995 and discovered that there was in the region of £223,000 (€283,000) put through his accounts or accounts now associated with him. This was almost the same as his total net earnings from 1987 to 1995 and was a high multiple of his earnings from 1993 to 1995.
The problem now is that his explanations for these sums have become increasingly implausible.
The £54,000 savings
Bertie has claimed he saved this amount from 1987 to 1993, during which time he had earnings of around £270,000. He says he kept these savings in cash in his safe in St Luke's and in his office in the Department of Finance.
The problem with this story is he did not lodge this money in late 1993 or early 1994 when he opened current and savings accounts in AIB, Upper O'Connell St, Dublin. Also his then solicitor, the late Gerry Brennan, who acted for him in his marriage separation litigation, and who would have known of these savings by the end of 1993 (Bertie says he disclosed these savings in his “affidavit of means” in his marriage case), would hardly have told mutual friends in December 1993 that Bertie was broke and needed a “dig-out” to help him pay legal costs of £17,200.
It is particularly surprising he did not lodge the £34,000 he had at St Luke's in the safe on 30 December 1993, when, he says, he lodged £17,5000 in cash and £5,000 in cheques – this was the £22,500 “dig out” he allegedly got on 27 December 1993. We are asked to believe that when he went to the safe in his office at St Luke's, on the morning of 30 December 1993, he took out only the £22,500 and left in the safe £34,000.
Also, if he had £54,000 in savings in December 1993 why would he have taken out a bank loan for £19,200 on 23 December 1993 to pay off his legal expenses, a contribution towards his wife's legal expenses and £1,500 to pay off his wife's car loan? All the more so since interest rates were very high at that time?
The December 1993 “dig out”
Bertie Ahern has claimed that on 27 December 1993 he received £22,500 by way of a “dig out” from friends. His claim is that his solicitor, the late Gerry Brennan, canvassed his friends for a financial contribution to deal with his legal expenses of £17,500 and, in doing so, he (Gerry Brennan) raised £22,500.
Since Gerry Brennan knew Bertie Ahern was not in financial difficulties and had £54,000 in savings plus a loan of £19,200 from AIB, he would hardly have sought funds for Bertie Ahern on a false basis.
There is also the consideration that not one of the friends who contributed to this “dig out” in December 1993 have any financial records to authenticate that they gave any monies to Bertie Ahern at this time. But, in Bertie's favour, there is the evidence of these friends that they did indeed contribute the monies Bertie says they gave him.
There is yet another curiosity about this £22,500 and it is that a £5,000 bank draft, which supposedly was the £5,000 contributed by Padraig O'Connor, then of NCB stockbrokers, did not originate with NCB at all but came through the bank account of a company called Roevin, which was owned at the time by two Manchester business people, with whom, Bertie's friend, Des Richardson, had an association.
The Manchester Stg£8,000
He claims to have got Stg£8,000 sterling at a function in the Four Seasons Hotel, Manchester, in October 1994 but he is curiously vague about who was present, although he claimed to know half of the 20 people present well. Asked about the event he said in evidence: “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.” 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 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.”
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 and that this lodgement was made along with the proceeds of the second “dig out”, of £16,500. 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 to the bank around that period was about Stg£2,000 per day, 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.
The suspicion is that he got a clean Stg£25,000 from some unidentified source and that the story about the Manchester payment and the second “dig out” is bogus.
The second £16,500 “dig out”
No plausible explanation for this second “dig out” has been offered so far. Bertie Ahern was not in financial difficulties. According to himself he had £54,000 in savings , a loan from AIB of £19,200, he had received £7,000 from his mother, maybe another £5,000 from a brother, another £5,000 or £10,000 from an undisclosed contributor (this was put in a building society account, totaling £90,200), out of which he would have had to pay just £17,200 in legal expenses and £20,000 to his daughters. In addition he had a very considerable ministerial salary. So why anyone would have thought he was in financial distress is not at all clear.
This becomes all the more suspicious, given that the lodgement of this and the supposed Manchester payment, came to an even Stg£25,000.
The £30,000 from Michael Wall
The story we are invited to believe is this: Michael Wall, based in Manchester, wanted to buy a house in Dublin in late 1994 . This coincided with a desire on the part of his friend, Bertie Ahern, to buy a house for it looked likely he would soon become leader of Fianna fail and Taoiseach and he wanted to have an address of his own (the Albert Reynold's government was in the throes of collapsing over the Fr Brendan Smith affair). Michael Wall agreed to buy a house in Beresford Avenue, the inside of which he had never seen before deciding to buy, and Bertie Ahern agreed to rent the house, which he had never seen. And the two of them agreed that Michael Wall would spend £30,000 renovating a new house (just four-years-old) and Bertie could spend £50,000 on renovations to a house which he had never seen, which he was not to own and which hardly needed any renovations anyway – this was a house worth just £130,000.
And instead of financing the supposed renovations through his bank, Michael Wall brought over from Manchester, in a brief case, Stg£30,000 in cash, and this was several months before the house was actually purchased.
Then a few days later Celia Larkin lodged this Stg£30,000 in a new account in her own name, along with £50,000 which Bertie gave her, also in cash. But Celia was unsure whether she ever saw this Stg£30,000 in cash on a table in St Luke's or from where she collected it to bring to the bank.
The Stg£30,000 purchase
Another Stg£30,000 emerged in Bertie Ahern's accounts in 1995 and the following is his explanation for this.
In early January 1995 Bertie decided it would be more helpful to Celia Larkin, who was looking after the renovation of the Beresford Ave house, if she had the £50,000 in cash rather than in an account in her own name. He has been unable to offer any plausible reason why he thought it would facilitate her to have cash in a bank safe to which she did not have access rather than in an account in her own name, so he withdrew the £50,000 from the bank.
He then decided, according to himself, that it would be better if Michael Wall, who was based in Manchester, should look after the renovation of the house rather than Celia Larkin and for that reason he decided to purchase Stg£30,000 with the £50,000 he had withdrawn from the bank. Why Michael Wall needed sterling to fund the renovation of a house in Dublin has not been explained.
He later offered another explanation for this purchase of Stg£30,000. It was that he had second thoughts about renting this house and decided to “pay back” Michael Wall's Stg£30,000 and to do this, instead of Celia Larkin withdrawing the Stg£30,000 which she had placed in an account opened specifically to receive that cash, he purchased Stg£30,000.
There is no record of this purchase of Stg£30,000, Bertie has no recollection of how or where he purchased this huge amount of money. He thinks it might have been purchased on his behalf by an associate, he agrees there would have been only a few associates at the time he would have asked to do this for him but cannot identify anybody who did so on his behalf. Neither, obviously, has anybody volunteered the information that he/she was the person who purchased this money for Bertie with Bertie's own cash.
He agreed he would have had to notify the bank in advance of his intention to purchase such a large amount of sterling but, again, had no recollection of doing so and neither has anybody in his bank any recollection of doing so. Neither is there any record in the bank of a purchase of anything like that amount around the time Bertie says he purchased the Stg£30,000. (the significance of all this is, by the way, is that if Bertie did not purchase the stg£30,000, where did this amount of sterling which subsequently emerged come from?)
He offered no explanation for why he didn't simply get a sterling bank draft for the amount and give it to Michael Wall. He said:
“I didn't do a draft”.
He said he might have bought the Stg£30,000 in dribs and drabs but could not offer any reason why he would have done it that way nor had he any recollection of doing so or getting anybody to do it on his behalf.
He then had another change of mind and decided he would proceed with the Beresford house, so there was no need to give Michael Wall bank his Stg£30,000 (this was around a time when Michael Wall had had an accident in Manchester and was hospitalised) but instead of putting the money back in the bank and earning interest in it, Bertie kept the Stg£30,000 in his safe, along with the IR£20,000 (approximately), making up the IR£50,000 he had withdrawn from Celia Larkin's account in January 1995.
Then on 15 June 1995 he needed to make payments of IR£11,743 for furnishings to the house. Instead of taking that money out of the Irish cash he had in his safe, he took out £10,000 sterling and £2,000 Irish and these cash amounts were lodged in an account of Celia Larkin's. Asked why he didn't give the money to Celia Larkin in Irish punts he offered no explanation other than: “It's just that I had both, I just did it, I don't think there was any particular reason”.
Then later in 1995 there was a lodgement of IR£19,142.92, which corresponds with exactly Stg£20,000 (given the then exchange rate). Bertie say this was the residue of the Stg£30,000 he had purchased, of which there is no record.
In all we are talking here about Stg£68,000 (that is in sterling alone, aside from the very large amounts of Irish currency that went through his hands at this time aside from his salary), which was a huge sum of money at the time, far in excess of the salary then being earned by Bertie Ahern, far in excess of ministerial salaries at the time.
The IPBS account
Towards the conclusion of his evidence last December, it emerged that in addition to the accounts he had opened in AIB, he had also opened an account in Irish Permanent Building Society, again in Drumcondra. This shows several cash lodgements which he claims are from his ministerial salary in 1994 and onwards, but £10,000 was lodged by way of cheques. He is unable to explain where these came from but has surmised these may have been political donations intended for his own use, which means he has appropriated contributions to his political campaigns for personal purposes. He also has failed to declared these as gifts and failed to pay due taxes on them.
The accumulation of issues concerning his finances is such as to endanger his credibility generally. As one senior Fianna Fail minister said in private recently, one of these financial transactions would be an embarrassment but the accumulation of them amounts to a crisis.
The revelation that Celia Larkin was the recipient of £30,000 from supposedly a Fianna Fail account which had gone undisclosed, has done him the most damage, even though this certainly has nothing to do with bribes from Owen O'Callaghan or anyone else.
His considerable achievements in the management of the economy since 1997, his crucial part in the negotiations that brought about the Good Friday Agreement and then the embedding of that Agreement, have been momentous accomplishments. He has also distinguished himself and the country by his role as President of the EU in 2004. His adroit management of relations with coalition partners has established Fianna Fail as the party of government perhaps for a long time to come. And now the acknowledgement of his achievements by being only the fifth person ever to address both the Houses of Parliament at Westminster and the houses of Congress in Washington.
To have all that record now sullied by revelations about his financial dealings that almost certainly have nothing to do with the focus of the Tribunals' enquiries (ie whether Owen O'Callaghan gave him bribes of £80,000 in 1994) is deeply unfortunately for him. He remains convinced it is also an injustice.