Former Fianna Fáil senator jailed for attempt to extort €100,000
Francie O’Brien breached his community’s trust with blackmail bid, judge says
Retired Fianna Fail Senator Francis O’Brien (70), from Corwillan, Latton, Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, at Carrick-on-Shannon Circuit Court for sentencing. Photograph: Brian Farrell.
A former Fianna Fáil senator has been jailed for his role in attempting to extort €100,000 from a Department of Agriculture veterinary inspector.
Judge John O’Hagan who described it as “an abominable scheme” imposed a three-year sentence on Francis O’Brien (70), Corwillan, Latton, Castleblayney, Co Monaghan. The judge suspended the final year of the sentence. O’Brien wept as he was led away at Carrick-on-Shannon Circuit Court to begin his sentence.
A senator from 1989 to 2011, he had pleaded guilty to demanding with menaces €100,000 from Michael Heelan at Tullyvaragh Lower, Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, on April 13th last year.
The judge told him that he, an elected representative to the Seanad for many years, had breached the trust of his community when he actively participated with blackmailers against a department official.
The former chairman of Lough Egish Co-op in Co Monaghan who had been one of the instigators of a merger to form Lakelands Dairies, was apprehended by gardaí after a sting operation.
Officers had followed him when Mr Heelan drove to a shed to hand over material relating to the department official’s work testing animals for TB and other diseases.
‘Pillar of the community’
Judge O’Hagan heard that Mr Heelan had gone to O’Brien, “a pillar of the community”, looking for advice after being fined €300. The vet had been prosecuted when waste material relating to his work was found incorrectly disposed of and he was worried about the implications for his job .
The former senator later told Mr Heelan that more material had been found but that the matter could be sorted out for €100,000. O’Brien told the veterinary inspector that he was “only the messenger”. The amount was gradually reduced but Mr Heelan eventually went to the Garda .
Two other people are due to stand trial in connection with the incident.
In his direct evidence, O’Brien, whose family farm 300 acres, apologised to Mr Heelan and to his own family for the grief and trauma he had caused them. “I am ashamed of myself,” he added.
The court heard that on April 13th last year, O’Brien rang Mr Heelan saying material had been found which could be traced to the vet.
He asked him to meet him as soon as possible to discuss these bags containing needles, blood bottles and other testing material.
O’Brien said he was only the messenger and he was trying to help.
A figure of €100,000 was mentioned and O’Brien said photographs could be produced of the material. Mr Heelan said he did not have that kind of money. The figure was later reduced to €70,000 and then came down to €50,000 or €60,000.
Mr Heelan said he had only €30,000. At one stage O’Brien said: “Michael, we are all on your side.”
The vet made a complaint to gardaí in Harcourt Square, Dublin, on April 19th, 2012.
The court heard that Mr Heelan later arranged to meet O’Brien, who drove him to a shed where the bags of material were located. Gardaí then moved in and arrested the former senator.
Det Garda Insp Fergus Treanor told the court that he had known O’Brien for 30 years and was “hugely surprised” by his involvement in this.
John Boylan, a former IFA vice-president, said he had known O’Brien since the mid- 1960s when he had been very involved in farmers’ rights, including the protest march to Dublin over prices.
He said O’Brien had helped set up one of the first group water schemes in Co Monaghan, which had helped 600 families who had no running water. Mr Boylan said he was “shocked” to hear of O’Brien’s involvement. “I thought his mind must have flipped,” he said.
Jonathan Kilfeather SC said the former senator had co-operated with gardaí and had made statements relating to other individuals who would be coming before the courts. He was remorseful and deeply ashamed of what he had done.
Like many other people, he had made “some disastrous financial decisions”.
Judge O’Hagan said that Mr Heelan had bared his soul to O’Brien because he was a pillar of the community. “He has held high office in our country,” the judge added.
He was not imposing a custodial sentence with an easy heart and he was aware that prison would be “ruinous” for O’Brien and his family.