Inquiry finds Ahern associate had close links with corrupt lobbyist Dunlop

 

Tim Collins played a key role in Bertie Ahern’s financial affairs, including his annual fundraising dinners

THE MAHON tribunal report draws specific attention to the closeness of the corrupt lobbyist Frank Dunlop to the Fianna Fáil party, to former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and to one of his closest associates, Tim Collins.

Collins played a key role in Ahern’s financial affairs, including his annual fundraising dinners, and ownership of his St Luke’s base in Drumcondra, Dublin. He was never a member of the party but did play a role in controlling money raised during election campaigns in Ahern’s Dublin Central constituency.

Collins features in three of the modules of the Mahon report which found that he used to link property owners who wanted their land rezoned with Frank Dunlop, whom he knew was engaged in political corruption. Dunlop has since served time in prison for his crimes.

In the section of their report dealing with Dunlop, the tribunal judges wrote that his close association with Fianna Fáil from his period as government press secretary, in the 1970s and 1980s , was one of the principal facilities he was in a position to offer clients who sought his services in connection with rezoning.

The report notes that in his testimony during the Quarryvale module, Dunlop spoke of his ease of access to Ahern and Albert Reynolds, when they were, respectively, minister for finance and taoiseach.

This access was used to lobby for financial support for a proposed football stadium in Neilstown, Dublin, in which Dunlop, corrupt Fianna Fáil politician the late Liam Lawlor, developer Owen O’Callaghan and architect Ambrose Kelly had an interest.

During the November 1992 general election Dunlop worked in Fianna Fáil headquarters at Reynolds’s invitation, to assist the campaign. “From 1993 Mr Dunlop provided assistance to Mr Des Richardson, in the latter’s capacity as chief fundraiser for Fianna Fáil,” the report noted.

Richardson, who was never a party member, was perhaps the chief fundraiser for Ahern over the course of his career. His evidence that he arranged a dig-out in December 1993 was rejected by the tribunal.

In the late 1990s, when Ahern was taoiseach, Richardson went into business with Dunlop. In 1997, the year Ahern became taoiseach, Richardson became a consultant to Frank Dunlop Associates, Dunlop’s firm on Mount Street, Dublin. His function was to source clients, according to the report. The report notes that in a number of rezoning matters it was Dunlop’s connections with people linked with Fianna Fáil which facilitated his retention as a “lobbyist”.

“For example, Lawlor was the individual who facilitated Dunlop’s retention as a lobbyist to promote the Quarryvale, Ballycullen/Beechill and Pennine rezoning proposals. Similarly it was Mr Tim Collins who effected Mr Dunlop’s introduction to individuals associated with the plans to rezone lands at Lissenhall, Cloghran and Walls Kinsealy.”

Collins was a partner in a business called Pilgrim Associates, based on Mount Street, as was Richardson. Projects with which the firm was associated included the interior fit-out of new Cert headquarters in Ahern’s constituency, built after he became minister for labour in 1987, his first senior ministry.

Land at Lissenhall, near Swords, Co Dublin, was successfully rezoned in the early 1990s. Collins, through Pilgrim Associates, knew people who had an interest in the land. Having the land rezoned as residential required a material contravention of the Dublin County Development Plan. An application for 120 houses on the land was submitted by Pilgrim.

In November 1992 Collins introduced the owners of the land to Dunlop, who was engaged to lobby councillors. He was to be paid £27,625 for his work. Dunlop told the tribunal that those at the November meeting understood that politicians would be paid for their votes. Collins said he did not recall any discussion of paying councillors.

However, the tribunal, in its report, said it was “satisfied that by late 1992 or early 1993, Mr Collins had an already established business relationship with Mr Dunlop” and that Collins knew of Dunlop’s practice of paying councillors.

Collins could not recall asking for, and receiving, a £2,000 cash payment from Dunlop for introducing the Lissenhall project to him, but the tribunal found that this had occurred.

It also found that Collins knew the value of having the lands rezoned and had an arrangement that he would be paid a “finder’s fee” from the landowners once the lands were rezoned and sold. This in turn prompted Collins to engaged Dunlop’s services, the tribunal found.

In a general observation, the inquiry said there were a number of instances where Collins negotiated an entitlement to a percentage of the profits from the resale of lands that had been rezoned, as his finder’s fee.

The Cloghran lands were close to Dublin airport and comprised about 18 acres. In the late 1980s the lands were acquired for £205,000. Collins sourced the lands for the purchasers and on the basis that he would be paid a finder’s fee if they were rezoned. The lands were zoned agricultural. An attempt to have the lands rezoned to industrial was resisted by Aer Rianta and the Department of Transport, for reasons to do with air safety.

Dunlop was retained as a lobbyist in January 1993 in a meeting with one of the landowners arranged and attended by Collins in the offices of Ambrose Kelly and Partners. The tribunal was satisfied Collins and the owner, John Butler, knew payments to councillors might be required. It found that other consortium members did not know. The lands were rezoned in late 1993 and sold for £1.6 million in March 1996. Collins was paid £29,613.

In December 1993 companies associated with Butler paid bills due to Saatchi &Saatchi and owed by Fianna Fáil. This was an apparent “pick me up” arranged by Dunlop and the tribunal heard evidence that Richardson did on occasion ask Dunlop to participate in such arrangements. Butler, who was known to Richardson and a regular attendee at the annual fundraising dinner for Ahern, said at one stage that Dunlop asked that money due to him be paid to Saatchi Saatchi instead, but later said this was not correct.

Collins was also involved in an unsuccessful attempt to rezone 54 acres at Kinsealy, Co Dublin, in 1993. Dunlop told the tribunal Collins set up a meeting between him and the land’s owner in January 1993 where he was retained to lobby councillors, though Collins presence was contested by the other two men.

The tribunal decided that Collins was at the meeting and, although nothing may have been said, was aware at the time of the “system” run by Dunlop.

The final module in which Collins featured in relation to corrupt payments, had to do with 90 acres near Jugback Lane, near Swords, Co Dublin.

A former schoolmate of Ahern’s, Robert White, had an interest in the lands. White is a jeweller and property developer who was part of a consortium behind a controversial proposal in the mid-1990s to build a casino and conference centre on the disused Phoenix Park site in Dublin.

Richardson acted as a consultant to the project and former Fianna Fáil press officer PJ Mara handled public relations for it.

Richardson was at one stage asked to approach Lawlor to work on the project, but denied suggestions he had been asked to offer him £100,000.

White retained Pilgrim Associates to work on his proposed residential and commercial development of the Swords lands. Permission was granted in 1992.

Dunlop was retained in 1990 to work on the project. Collins told the tribunal he may have been the person who recommended Dunlop to White, something which the tribunal found to be the case.

White said Dunlop was retained to deal with local residents’ groups and not with councillors. The tribunal did not accept this and found that Dunlop was retained to lobby councillors.

The inquiry found that White had made cash payments to Dunlop and that on this basis they should lean towards accepting Dunlop’s evidence that he had told White that councillors would have to be “kept onside”.

It also found that Dunlop had made a corrupt payment to a councillor in relation to those lands.

White was Dunlop’s guest at the annual fundraising dinner for Ahern in Kilmainham Hospital, Dublin, in December 1990.

The tribunal rejected evidence from Ahern and Collins that an account with the Irish Permanent in Drumcondra opened in the late 1980s held funds for a building trust associated with St Luke’s. The account was called the B/T account.

The tribunal found that the initials stood for Bertie and Tim and that in the period 1989 to 1997 it held funds for the benefit of Ahern and Collins.

Some of the lodgements to the account over the years arose from political donations, the tribunal found.