Ban sought on corrupt politicians who take bribes

Fri, Mar 23, 2012, 00:00

COURTS SHOULD be allowed to ban members of the Oireachtas who are convicted of bribery from holding public office and to remove their pension rights, the Mahon tribunal has recommended.

It has also proposed that commercial entities convicted of engaging in bribery should be prohibited from tendering for public contracts for seven years.

It recommends that a person who pays bribes to a public official to influence them in their public functions in the areas of planning and development should be banned from applying for planning permission for seven years except in relation to their own private residence.

In a series of recommendations, the tribunal has proposed a strengthening of regulations and the introduction of new sanctions to prevent corruption and bribery.

The report says corruption, and in particular political corruption, “is a deeply corrosive and destructive force”. It says that while corruption is most obviously a failing of individual morality, it is also “a problem of systemic failure”.

The tribunal says bribes may be made in the guise of political donations, and large donations “may in themselves exert a corrupting influence” even without the quid pro quo characteristic of bribery.

STRENGTHENING POLITICAL FINANCE LEGISLATION

The tribunal says legislation governing elections – the political finance acts – should be changed to place new limits on amounts that can be given in donations. It says the definition of a “donation” should be widened to be seen as “any contribution given, used or received for political purposes”.

The report says anonymous or cash donations pose corruption risks and that amounts above €55 in a donation to an individual electoral candidate or elective representative and €175 for donations to a political party should be prohibited.

“In order to avoid the possibility of multiple anonymous or cash donations being made in order to circumvent the donation amount restrictions, the tribunal is also recommending that an overall limit be placed on the amount which an individual, political party or third party may receive by way of anonymous donation, namely €2,000 for an individual and €5,000 for a political party or third party.”

The tribunal also maintains that the current limits on the amounts which either an individual politician, a political party or a third party may accept from an individual donor are too high. It welcomes proposals in new legislation to lower these limits to €1,000 and €2,500 respectively.

However, it warns that at present a donor could give a donation to each member of a party. It proposes that an overall limit be placed on the amount which an individual may give to a political party and electoral candidates or elected representatives who are members of that party.

The tribunal has also recommended that existing expenditure rules for political parties that apply at election time be extended to cover all political expenditure. It says these should be sufficiently low “to be an effective ceiling on expenses”. It also says spending rules should be widened to cover third parties and candidates in Seanad elections.

GREATER DISCLOSURE

The tribunal also wants greater disclosure of donations. It says political parties and elected representatives should be required to disclose their annual, audited accounts. Individuals should have to disclose the receipt of a donation of more than €55 with the limit for political parties set at €175. It also says there should be more detailed information provided on the nature and source of the donations disclosed.

It also maintains that these disclosures should be available to voters before an election “so that they can take it into account when voting”.

The tribunal also recommends that the Standards in Public Office Commission, which polices the political finance measures at national level, should have its powers strengthened. At local level it wants responsibility for enforcement taken away from local authorities and given to an external independent body.

SANCTIONS

The tribunal says not all breaches of political finance measures warrant a criminal conviction and that fines could be imposed for minor or inadvertent cases.

To avoid “political actors” finding loopholes in the political finance acts that allow them to act within the letter of the law while undermining its spirit, new sanctions should be introduced for those who deliberately circumvent the requirements.

The tribunal also recommends that two new bribery offences be introduced. One would criminalise the making of payments to a third party where the payer knows or is reckless as to whether that party uses the money as a bribe to further the payer’s interest. The second would criminalise a lack of supervision or control on the part of a commercial entity which facilitates the commission of bribery to the benefit of that entity by one of its employees or other business associates.

The tribunal says there are two pieces of legislation covering bribery. One dating from 1889 does not apply to bribery of Oireachtas members, while the second Act, from 1906, which covers parliamentarians, does not provide for the same sanctions as the earlier legislation.

“Specifically, under the earlier Act, the court may prohibit a public official from holding public office and/or that he or she forfeit any pension rights arising from that office. As these sanctions appear particularly appropriate in the case of bribery involving Oireachtas members, the tribunal is recommending that the 1889 Act be extended to cover them.”

LOBBYISTS

The tribunal recommends that there should be a new register of lobbyists and that they should adhere to a statutory code of conduct. It says lobbyists should have to disclose information regarding those for whom they are working as well as details of the public bodies they have lobbied and the objectives in mind.

It proposes that senior office-holders should have to publish details of their contacts with lobbyists in relation to development and legislative initiatives.

GREATER TRANSPARENCY AND NEW PLANNING CONTROLS

The report recommends greater transparency in the planning process. It says submissions received by local authorities and the county manager’s report on these submissions should be available on the internet.

It maintains that where elected members decide to depart from the county manager’s report, they should be obliged to give reasons.

It says An Bord Pleanála should have the power of veto in cases where elected members disagree with the advice of professional planners and intend to issue a direction to the county manager to grant planning permission. In such cases both the planning advice and the reasons of the elected members in opposing this should be sent to An Bord Pleanála.

The tribunal also recommends that a new planning regulator should be appointed to take over the role of the Minister for the Environment in giving directions to regional and local planning authorities and in relation to enforcement. It says the regulator should also have powers to investigate “possible systemic problems in the planning system, including those raising corruption risks”.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

The tribunal recommends that disclosure requirements of public officials should be expanded to include conflicts of interest, non-material interests, electoral donations and “interests enjoyed by a public official as part of a class of persons”.

It says public officials should also be required to make a periodic disclosure of interests within 30 days of entering public office and to update their disclosures within 30 days of any significant change in their interests or after the acquisition of a new interest.

MAIN FINDINGS  RECOMMENDATIONS

Much of the explanation provided by Bertie Ahern about the source of substantial funds identified and inquired into by the tribunal was “untrue”.

Ahern failed to account for more than IR£165,000 which passed through bank accounts connected to him in the early and mid-1990s.

The tribunal was unable to determine if Ahern received corrupt payments from developer Owen O’Callaghan because Ahern did not give a true account as to the source of the money.

A series of “extraordinary and unprecedented” attacks on the tribunal by ministers in the 2007/08 period were designed to “erode its independence and collapse its inquiry” into matters relating to Ahern.

Former minister Pádraig Flynn received IR£50,000 from developer Tom Gilmartin in April 1989 to “ease or remove obstacles” in relation to the Quarryvale development.

Complaints to the Garda by Mr Gilmartin about Liam Lawlor, former assistant county manager George Redmond and councillor Finbarr Hanrahan during a 1989 corruption inquiry were not “thoroughly investigated”. Requests in 1993 from then taoiseach Albert Reynolds and then minister for finance Bertie Ahern seeking donations to Fianna Fáil from developer Owen O’Callaghan were “entirely inappropriate, and was an abuse of political power and government authority”. The requests culminated in the payment of £80,000 to Fianna Fáil in 1994 against the backdrop of lobbying for State support for a stadium in Neilstown.

Former Fianna Fáil member Liam Lawlor abused his role as an elected public representative to a “very significant degree”.

Corruption continued at length in the planning system because it “affected every level of Irish political life” and “those with the power to stop it were frequently implicated in it”.

Cork-based developer Owen O’Callaghan personally made or authorised corrupt payments totalling almost IR£120,000 to politicians for their support for the rezoning of land at Quarryvale, now the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre.

Lobbyist Frank Dunlop made corrupt payments of up to £170,000 to politicians on behalf of developers to interfere with the planning process.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Courts should be allowed to ban members of the Oireachtas who are convicted of bribery from holding public office and to remove pension rights.

Whistleblower legislation should be made more robust. A planning regulator should be appointed with powers to investigate possible systemic problems, including those raising corruption risks.

The political finance acts should be changed to place new limits on amounts that can be given in donations and the definition of a “donation” should be widened to be seen as “any contribution given, used or received for political purposes”.

Individuals should have to disclose the receipt of a donation of more than €55 and political parties should disclose donations of €175.

There should be a new register of lobbyists, who should have to adhere to a statutory code of conduct.

Disclosure requirements for public officials should be expanded to include conflicts of interest.