Trawl of boomtime hubris shone unflattering light on ‘frenzied’ era

Suburban solicitor owned 50 houses and a fleet of Bentleys

Pic Shows: Former Solicitor Thomas Byrne arriving at Court. Pic: Collins Courts.

Pic Shows: Former Solicitor Thomas Byrne arriving at Court. Pic: Collins Courts.

Tue, Nov 19, 2013, 01:02

The layers of evidence emerged like artefacts from another era, as if a time capsule had been secreted in the earth around 2007 and retrieved in the cold, unforgiving light of a time and place that has changed entirely.

The archaeologist scraping through old ruins has big-picture omniscience – he knows how the story ends – and the same was broadly true of the six-week excavation through boom-time Irish hubris that ended at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court yesterday. At issue, however, was the place in that story of Thomas Byrne, the solicitor whose rise and fall itself reads like a parable on boom and bust.

That country – at least the one Byrne moved in – was a place where all it took to “sort out” a multimillion euro loan was a chat with Michael Fingleton in an executive box at Croke Park. A place where a suburban solicitor from Walkinstown could have 50 houses, a fleet of Bentleys and a vague reputation as a consultant to Prada and nobody gave any of it a second’s thought. A place where a couple of gardaí, eager for a slice of the property action, would band together and snap up a shopping centre in Odessa or a plot of land in Belize.

By the mid-2000s, the period in which the offences were committed, Thomas Byrne was flying high. His Walkinstown firm had outgrown his home office to become a busy practice with 15 staff and about 700 client accounts. He had built a lucrative sideline in property development; by his own estimate he owned “between 40 and 50” houses. An official from KBC said that when it secured Byrne as a customer in 2007, having pursued him for months, the bank viewed him as an “avid property developer” who earned €6.5 million a year from his solicitor’s practice and a consultancy business for “French fashion houses including Prada, Chloe and Roberto Cavali” (it didn’t ring any alarm bells that the houses were actually Italian). The bank believed Byrne had a net worth of €32 million, but neither it nor any of the other lenders seem to have made much effort to verify his documents.

It was in that “frenzied” climate, as Judge Patrick McCartan described the period, that banks were so quick to dispense loans to Byrne when he turned up with title deeds to a number of properties in the mid-2000s. According to the prosecution, Byrne fraudulently transferred properties belonging to his clients into his name so he could secure millions of euro in mortgages against them from six financial institutions (see panel).

The 50 counts of theft, forgery, using forged documents and deception, relating to transactions that took place between 2004 and 2007, involved the alleged theft of €51.8 million, making this Ireland’s biggest ever fraud trial to date.

Byrne pleaded not guilty to all charges. In the dock, he often sat with his head bowed, barely looking at anyone in court for hours on end. During breaks he would sit alone, ensconced in a Milan Kundera novel as he waited for proceedings to resume. His mood seemed to lift when he was joined by friends in the final weeks, and when the prosecution closed its case, he took to the witness box to give evidence in his own defence. “I know you’re only interested in a verdict, but I’m interested in the truth,” he declared.

Sharply dressed, as ever (“There’s no crime in clever accessorising”, he replied to laughter from the court when prosecution barrister Remy Farrell described him as a “snappy dresser”), Byrne was by turns emotional, clear-eyed and evasive in his five days in the witness box.

In his version of events, everything started to go downhill when he first met the property developer John Kelly through a mutual acquaintance, a radiologist named Mary O’Connor. Their first joint venture – an investment of £20,000 in a property deal – yielded them a profit of about £1 million, but things soon deteriorated, Byrne said. Gradually, Kelly “inveigled” himself into the office. He became aggressive and threatening, demanding money from Byrne to finance his “outlandish” lifestyle and hinting that his brother was “involved with people up the North”.

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