‘I’m not saying what he did was right . . . but I do think he was a victim’
Former solicitor Thomas Byrne’s staff know he did wrong but feel his situation got out of control
Former solicitor Thomas Byrne. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
When news broke that an unnamed Dublin solicitor had fled the country owing tens of millions of euro to his clients, Susan McElroy and other members of Thomas Byrne’s staff were at a wedding show at Leopardstown racecourse. One of Byrne’s sidelines was a chauffeur business and the show was a useful opportunity to showcase the company’s fleet of Bentleys and vintage cars.
McElroy, the office manager at Byrne’s Walkinstown practice, remembers first hearing the news that morning when she took a call from another of Byrne’s employees. “Do I need to come in on Monday?” he asked her, jokingly wondering whether it was Byrne who had fled. “I said, that’s nothing to do with us,” she recalls.
McElroy was right. The solicitor referred to in the reports was Michael Lynn who, it would later emerge, had allegedly borrowed huge sums of money using bogus security.
When Byrne’s practice opened the following Monday morning, however, the phones were hopping and the fax machines were in overdrive. News of Lynn’s flight had spooked the banks; now they were urgently contacting law practices, trying to track down proof of ownership of various properties on their loan books.
“Because of Lynn, the banks panicked,” McElroy recalls. “It was fax after fax after fax.”
It was towards the end of that tumultuous week that Barbara Cooney, a solicitor at Byrne’s practice, discovered that her signature had been forged on a document relating to a €4.5 million loan. She reported it to the Law Society. Eight days after the Lynn news broke, Byrne’s practice had been shut down and the door locks changed.
Biggest white-collar trial
The long investigation that followed led to the biggest white-collar trial to come before an Irish court. The saga drew to a close this week, when Byrne (47), Mountjoy Square, Dublin, got 12 years for fraud and theft offences totalling almost €52 million.
In an interview with The Irish Times, McElroy says she feels sorry for her former employer. “I feel he was a victim,” she says. “I’m not saying what he did was right. What he did was wrong. He did steal the money, he did that to people – but I do think he was a victim.”
Byrne was found guilty of transferring clients’ homes into his name and then using them to fraudulently borrow millions from six financial institutions.
He pleaded not guilty and claimed he was threatened by his former business partner, property developer John Kelly, into taking out the loans, although he did not run a legal defence of duress. The court was told that Kelly is not before the courts on any charges.
McElroy describes Byrne, who hired her in 2002, as a likeable, charming and witty man who didn’t care much what people thought of him. “The accountant called him Peter Pan – the boy that never grew up,” she recalls.
Once when she complained about being overworked, McElroy says, Byrne promptly announced she was fired. “He said to me, ‘You’re no use, you’re fired, you’re to get out.’ I said, ‘Grand’. ‘Do you know what,’ he said, ‘You’re all fired, you can all get out,’ so we all left the office. We sat on the wall in the car park, having a smoke and a chat. Next of all, the window opened. ‘Yis can come back in if you make me a cup of tea’. And he closed the window. So we all went back into the office.”