Property deals in England linked to Lowry and O'Brien investigated by tribunal
BACKGROUND:The inquiry by the Moriarty tribunal into three controversial property deals in England in the late 1990s involved several spectacular developments, wrtites COLM KEENA,Public Affairs Correspondent
With the publication of yesterday’s Sunday Independent, it is clear that the controversy still has a bit of mileage in it.
Although an almost identical cast of characters was involved in all three purchases, the tribunal was told that two involved Michael Lowry, and not Denis O’Brien, while a third involved O’Brien and had nothing to do with Lowry.
Properties in Mansfield and Cheadle, in England, were bought in March and September 1999, at a total cost of £695,000.
Lowry told the tribunal he was involved in both and O’Brien told the tribunal they had nothing to do with him.
The opposite was the case in relation to a deal in Doncaster, the two men told the tribunal.
Doncaster Rovers Football Club Ltd, which had a lease on the Doncaster stadium, was bought for £4.3 million in August 1998. The idea was that the stadium could be redeveloped at a profit.
The same solicitor, Christopher Vaughan, acted for the purchaser in all three deals. The land agent Kevin Phelan, from Omagh, Co Tyrone, was also involved in all three deals, as was O’Brien’s then accountant and business associate, Aidan Phelan (no relation of Kevin Phelan).
Initially, in 2001, the tribunal accepted the evidence that the Doncaster deal did not involve Lowry.
Then, in January 2003, The Irish Times disclosed the existence of a September 1998 letter from Vaughan to Lowry in which the former referred to Lowry’s “total involvement” in the Doncaster deal.
The Irish Times also disclosed that the letter had been produced at arbitration hearings in London aimed at settling a dispute between the vendors and purchasers of Doncaster Rovers Football Club.
O’Brien’s father, Denis O’Brien snr, was involved in the arbitration hearings and made a complaint to the London police afterwards, alleging blackmail. No charges were ever brought.
Arising from these reports, the tribunal began to look again at the Doncaster deal. When it moved to open public hearings, O’Brien challenged the move in the High Court. He said the deal was his deal, had nothing to do with Lowry, and so did not come within the tribunal’s terms of reference.
He lost the case and also lost the appeal he brought to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in September 2005, The Irish Times reported the existence of a video purportedly showing a meeting between Kevin Phelan and the vendors of Doncaster Rovers. The main owner was an English businessman, Ken Richardson, who has served time for seeking to have the stadium burned down. Mark Weaver was a minor shareholder and an associate of Richardson’s.
The date on the tape was February 2002 and it showed Phelan, Richardson and Weaver discussing the English property deals, the tribunal, and the view that they were still owed money arising from the Doncaster deal. Phelan suggested that he and Richardson work together, in secret, to ensure they got paid. From how the tape is structured, it appears that Phelan did not know he was being taped.
In time the tribunal held public hearings into the Doncaster transaction. The tribunal chairman, Mr Justice Michael Moriarty, in his report, concluded that the Mansfied and Cheadle transactions constituted an effort by O’Brien to confer a financial benefit on Lowry.
He concluded that at one stage the Doncaster deal was also intended to confer a benefit on Lowry. He said the tribunal had been unable to determine the precise nature of Lowry’s interest. He said that while the tribunal “could comment on what it believed may have been the nature of Mr Lowry’s interest and involvement”, to do so would be “unduly speculative”.
O’Brien and Lowry have rejected the tribunal’s findings.
The tribunal said payments made to Phelan were designed to stop him causing trouble for O’Brien and Lowry.
After the Doncaster hearings ended, Phelan gave a sworn affidavit to the tribunal saying Lowry had no involvement in the Doncaster deal. However, the tribunal came to a different conclusion.
Last July Senator Diarmuid Wilson from Cavan-Monaghan told the Seanad that he had “new information that refers to the acquisition of Doncaster Rovers Football Club and records that a member of the Oireachtas attended well in excess of 50 meetings relating to this acquisition”. It was a reference to Lowry.
The disclosures about a secretly taped phone conversation involving Michael Lowry seems to indicate there may be more revelations in relation to Doncaster Rovers Football Club.
Key dates: Doncaster deal
An Isle of Man company, Westferry Ltd, is incorporated by Kevin Phelan. It is owned by the Glebe Trust, a trust established by Mr Phelan at the same time.
Denis O’Brien provides £670,000 to be used as a deposit for the purchase of the shares in Doncaster Rovers Football Club Ltd and it is agreed that the shares in the company will be bought by Westferry for £4.3 million.
Sale is completed. Closing funds are loaned to Mr O’Brien by Anglo Irish Bank. The Isle-of-Man based Wellingon Trust, set up for the benefit of Mr O’Brien and his family, takes over Westferry.