Rabbitte in the glare of Tribunal headlights
Pat Rabbitte gave evidence at the Planning Tribunal on Friday 24 February. Questions arise about his evidence, including the following: * Why did he receive a £2,000 donation (which he subsequently returned) if he believed receipt of such a donation was improper? * Why did he fail to volunteer information about the donation to a Garda inquiry into planning corruption and fail to volunteer information about this to the Planning Tribunal? * Why did he deny ever receiving "any such payments" when asked by the Planning Tribunal about donations in connection with another development at Quarryvale? * Why did he support a rezoning of lands against the strong advice of council experts and officials? * Did he say privately to Frank Dunlop, after the Planning Tribunal had been established, that he "presumed that matter between us will never arise" (Rabbitte denies saying this; Dunlop asserts he did). By Colin Murphy
In November 1992, shortly before the general election of that month, Pat Rabbitte received the largest cash donation of his political career. It was made by Frank Dunlop and according to Dunlop, it was made in recognition of Rabbitte's support for a hugely controversial rezoning in Ballycullen, an area in Rabbitte's constituency. Rabbitte says no connection was made with his support for the Ballycullen rezoning and the donation. He returned the donation three weeks afterwards. No other councilor or former councilor, who was in receipt of any such donation, has returned the donation.
Pat Rabbitte subsequently failed to volunteer information about this donation to both the Mahon Tribunal and a Garda inquiry. He said he considered it a “non-donation” as he had returned it.
The donation was made by Frank Dunlop on behalf of Christopher Jones, the owner of the Ballycullen lands. Jones had been refused rezoning of the lands in the 1970s and 1980s but in 1992, having hired Frank Dunlop and spent some £100,000 on payments to Dunlop and to politicians, the rezoning finally passed. The rezoning was vigorously opposed by the county planners and the country manager of South Dublin County Council.
Frank Dunlop has said many of the payments he made to councillors were corrupt (Christopher Jones denies any knowledge of this), but that his payment to Pat Rabbitte was a legitimate political donation.
The day on which Frank Dunlop said he gave Pat Rabbitte the money, 11 November 1992, Pat Rabbitte and his wife made lodgments into their bank accounts totaling £1,560.
Pat Rabbitte said he did not recall ever discussing Ballycullen with Frank Dunlop, although it was not unusual for Frank Dunlop to contact him about various developments as the Council was then preparing the 1993 Dublin Development Plan. Frank Dunlop's diary and telephone records documented a number of telephone calls to and from Pat Rabbitte in 1992; Pat Rabbitte did not recall any of them.
Pat Rabbitte said he had decided to support the rezoning of the Ballycullen lands after visiting the farm at the behest of an associate of Christopher Jones, Frank Brooks. He recalled walking around the farm with Frank Brooks, who argued that the surrounding development, and resulting vandalism, meant the farm was no longer viable.
The rezoning vote was held on 29 October 1992, and passed easily, supported by Pat Rabbitte and his two Democratic Left colleagues on the council, Don Tipping and Mick Billane, even though it was opposed by the officials of the council.
On 10 November 1992, according to Frank Dunlop's telephone records, Pat Rabbitte phoned Dunlop's office. That same day, Frank Dunlop withdrew £55,000 in cash for payments to politicians. Frank Dunlop's diary for the next day, 11 November 1992, recorded a meeting with Pat Rabbitte: “PR at home”. Frank Dunlop told the Tribunal he called to Pat Rabbitte's house, gave him £3,000 in cash and thanked him for his support with the Ballycullen rezoning.
The day on which Frank Dunlop said he gave Pat Rabbitte £3,000, Pat Rabbitte lodged £500 to a loan account and his wife, Deirdre McDermott, lodged £1,060 to her account, according to bank records.
Other lodgments Pat Rabbitte made to that loan account in 1992 were transfers from his other bank accounts. The £500 was not. Pat Rabbitte said he did not recall anything about this account.
The £1,060 lodged by his wife, Deirdre McDermott, was substantially higher than other lodgments she made in the months before and after. She told the Tribunal she was the “chief money hunter” for Pat Rabbitte's general election campaign and would have lodged donations from friends and family, along with payments she received for her psychotherapy practice, which explained why this amount was high.
Pat Rabbitte disputed that the meeting with Frank Dunlop had happened on 11 November and denied there was any connection between the donation and the lodgments. He was able to date the meeting by his recollection of their discussion – he said they discussed the general election campaign, which Frank Dunlop was then working on for Fianna Fáil, and that Frank Dunlop had not been hired to work on the campaign until some days later, 13 November, so their meeting must have taken place after that date.
Pat Rabbitte also disputed Frank Dunlop's description of the meeting, saying his description contained “embellishments that manufactured detail”.
Frank Dunlop had told the Tribunal that the meeting took place in a room at Pat Rabbitte's home. The room was undergoing renovation and Dunlop said there was wall-paper peeling from the wall. He said he brought IR£3,000 in cash with him and placed the wad of cash on the table at which he and Pat Rabbitte sat during the meeting. He said Pat Rabbitte sat in a low-backed armchair at a table. Pat Rabbitte said the room's walls were painted, not papered, and that he had an upright office chair at his desk. Pat Rabbitte said he “very vividly” recalled the meeting. He told the Planning Tribunal: “We started to discuss the general election. Its progress, the likely outcome, and so on. I took a phone call. We resumed our discussion. I took another phone call which proved more difficult to terminate. He rose and either gestured or said to me that he had to leave. Put his hand into his pocket, took out an envelope and laid it down on my desk.”
Pat Rabbitte said he opened the envelope after Dunlop left, and counted IR£2,000 in it. (Frank Dunlop had said the amount was IR£3,000.)
Pat Rabbitte said he left the house himself almost immediately after Frank Dunlop, to attend a function at a local school, and had not seen his wife until that evening. He said he did not give his wife any of the money so there could have been no question of his wife lodging the money or a part of it in their personal bank account that same day.
That evening, Pat Rabbitte said, he discussed the donation with his campaign manager. He told his manager, “I have good news and I have bad news. We got a significant donation today, and the bad news is that it has to go back”.
He told his Democratic Left colleagues about the donation, and they agreed the money would be returned by party cheque after the election.
Pat Rabbitte said he did not give the money much consideration thereafter, as he was in the middle of a general election campaign. Having determined that it would be returned by cheque, they used the cash for election expenses, which saved them making trips to the bank during the campaign, he said.
“My colleagues tell me that we used it for the normal expenses of the campaign which very probably was things like advertising in the local newspapers, petrol expenses, all of the expenses that one has during a campaign rather than go down to the bank a number of times and draw out money each time”, Pat Rabbitte said.
“I had no idea and no interest as to what use the money was put to. My interest was that it was returned... And I am fascinated by the interest in it since I am the only witness before this Tribunal who returned the donation and it seems to be attracting more attention than those that weren't returned.”
He said he believed the money was a political donation made on the basis that he could feasibly be in the Cabinet after the election, and that the money was not related to rezoning motions at the Council. He had decided to return it to avert any perceived conflict of interest, he said.
The following year, a series of articles in the Irish Times alleged corruption in the planning process. The Minister for the Environment appointed a Garda inspector to conduct an inquiry. In July 1993, Pat Rabbitte, then chairman of the county council (South Dublin), wrote to each councilor, asking them to cooperate with the inquiry. Pat Rabbitte told the Tribunal he did not tell the investigating Gardaí of the donation from Frank Dunlop, as he “didn't believe (the donation) had any planning context”.
Later in 1993, the Ballycullen rezoning came up for a confirmation vote. This time, Pat Rabbitte's two Democratic Left colleagues voted against the rezoning, but Pat Rabbitte himself was absent for the vote. He told the Tribunal he had to be in the Dáil on the day of the confirmation motion at the county council, as there was a motion of no confidence in the government and he was under the party whip. He said he and his Democratic Left colleagues had decided to rescind their support for the rezoning on the basis of private conversations which Pat Rabbitte had had with Frank McDonald of the Irish Times, following the articles alleging corruption.
During one conversation, Pat Rabbitte told Frank McDonald that he thought the Ballycullen rezoning was “kosher”. Frank McDonald disagreed, and said he thought Ballycullen was “iffy”, but that he didn't have any tangible evidence, Pat Rabbitte said.
Some time later, after the Planning Tribunal started, in late 1997 or 1998, Pat Rabbitte and Frank Dunlop met each other in a department store in Dublin - Frank Dunlop said it was Brown Thomas. Pat Rabbitte said the meeting was accidental and happened in a crowd of hundreds of people during the post-Christmas sales. He said the meeting was brief and insubstantial.
“The only thing I can recall about the banter was him getting serious and telling me it was far more serious that that and did I know he had already expended £121,000 in preparing for the Tribunal... And that's the only recall I have about what was a pretty frivolous encounter”, Pat Rabbitte said.
Frank Dunlop has told the Tribunal that, at that chance meeting, Pat Rabbitte had said to him he “presumed that matter between us will never arise”. Pat Rabbitte denied this.
Later again, in December 1999, the Tribunal wrote to Pat Rabbitte asking him for details of all payments he had received from Frank Dunlop and others in connection with the rezoning of lands at Quarryvale (now the site of the Liffey Valley shopping centre). Pat Rabbitte replied that he had received no such payments.
Counsel for the Tribunal, Patricia Dillon, asked him in cross-examination: “Did you get £2,000 from Mr Dunlop in November 1992?”
“No, I did not”, Pat Rabbitte replied.
He elaborated: “I told Mr Dunlop that we had a procedure in place that would judge after the election whether or not we should accept any donation... So, we did not accept that donation, we resolved immediately to return it and as soon as we could conveniently get to the bank after the election, we did that.”
He later said: “I didn't get any benefit from the payment. The same amount as I got was returned... I didn't solicit it, I didn't ask for it, and we sent it back”.
Patricia Dillon asked him if his failure to reveal the donation from Frank Dunlop to the Tribunal was related to their meeting in the department store when they had discussed the Tribunal. Pat Rabbitte said it wasn't.
In an earlier statement to the Tribunal, Pat Rabbitte said he had only twice voted in support of rezonings against the advice of the county manager – these two times were on motions related to Citywest and Kiltipper. Patricia Dillon asked him was his support for the rezoning at Ballycullen a further, third time on which he had voted against the advice of the county manager. He said it was.
Following Frank Dunlop's evidence at the Tribunal in mid February 2006, when he alleged he had given Pat Rabbitte £3,000 and had received just £2,000 in return, Pat Rabbitte released a press statement countering this, quoting materials which had been supplied to him by the Tribunal in confidence.
This statement was in violation of an order by Justice Iarlaith O'Neill in the High Court that Tribunal documents circulated in advance of hearings were to be used for cross-examination only.
Patricia Dillon questioned him:
Patricia Dillon: “Were you aware... that you were not permitted to use the documentation other than for the purposes of cross-examining Mr Dunlop...?”
Pat Rabbitte: “I am sure I was”.
Dillon: “Would you just explain to the Tribunal why... you elected to disclose the confidential material contained in prior statements of people without any notice to the Tribunal?”
Rabbitte: “Well, in the modern world in which we live, Ms Dillon, the Tribunal is not the only Tribunal of assessment of this kind of controversy. And I found myself in circumstances where Mr Dunlop was in the box saying things markedly different from what he said in private evidence in private interviews with the Tribunal six year ago... And I felt that those who are condemning me in public ought to know what it is that he said when he had been here previously and what it is that he was saying now when he has reverted to spinning like a top.”
Rabbitte said he “meant no disrespect to the Tribunal”. Judge Keys said he accepted that.
During the course of his evidence, Pat Rabbitte described the circumstances of rezoning votes at the council at the time. He said he was not aware of specific allegations of bribery or corruption at the time, but that he had noted “patterns” of support for rezonings.
“It was plain, I think, that there was a pro-developer led rezoning block on the council and there was an anti-rezoning block on the council and the pattern for hundreds of developments is evident...
“All the visible evidence was that people... were marched in like ducks at the time the vote was imminent and almost always... voted en bloc and very frequently against the advice of the manager...”
“On some occasions, it seemed that arguments made to one by a developer and usually written submissions were being replicated in the chamber as reasons for rezoning rather than any good planning considerations, or any other considerations.”
Patricia Dillon asked him was he aware of any “actual allegation” of a councilor being bribed. “I don't believe I ever came across such a situation”, Rabbitte answered.
“My own view at the time would have been that builders and developers supported the party centres at general election times and that may or may not have had some formative influence on how their members voted on a given issue. But I did not suspect that individual councillors were in receipt o money for their votes.”π