Seán Dunne’s escape from bankruptcy foiled by ‘incredible’ attitude

High Court blames builder’s ‘wilful and deliberate’ failure to co-operate with official

Seán Dunne: ‘I find it difficult to conceive of a bankrupt who could be more obstructive and less co-operative,’ said Ms Justice Caroline Costello in a scathing judgment. Photograph: Collins Courts

Seán Dunne: ‘I find it difficult to conceive of a bankrupt who could be more obstructive and less co-operative,’ said Ms Justice Caroline Costello in a scathing judgment. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

Seán Dunne, the once-buccaneering property developer who embodied the hubris of the Celtic Tiger boom and now the ravages of the bust, will be 73 years old when he finally exits bankruptcy.

This is a far cry from the heavily indebted businessman who, in March 2013, at the age of 58, spoke about the possibility, under US law, of emerging from bankruptcy within months, debt-free.

On Tuesday, the High Court extended his bankruptcy for almost 12 years – from what was originally to be an automatic discharge date of July 2016 – until April 2028 over his “wilful and deliberate” failure to co-operate with the court-appointed official who has been handling his Irish bankruptcy since July 2013.

In a scathing judgment on Dunne’s conduct in bankruptcy, Ms Justice Caroline Costello said the Co Carlow builder was a “deeply dishonest” witness who told lies, engaged in “wholesale non-compliance” of his statutory obligations and showed an “incredible” attitude.

“I find it difficult to conceive of a bankrupt who could be more obstructive and less co-operative,” she said.

‘Shocked’

Dunne said he was “extremely disappointed and shocked” at the ruling, which he plans to appeal.

Prolonging his Irish bankruptcy to just three months short of the 15-year maximum permitted in law makes his extension the longest by the Irish courts since the post-crisis bankruptcy regime was overhauled in 2012.

The Tullow developer’s time in bankruptcy will end up being close to the periods that insolvent individuals once experienced under the old regime, when bankruptcy could be a lifelong debt sentence.

In the harsh light of hindsight, Dunne’s US filing for bankruptcy with €700 million in debts in 2013 – an effort to circumvent legal actions by two of his largest creditors and the debts they were owed (the National Asset Management Agency for €185 million and Ulster Bank for €164 million) – has backfired spectacularly.

After seeking court protection in Connecticut from his creditors, the Tullow builder spoke ambitiously about how he could exit bankruptcy within six months and be pouring concrete again at home someday.

“As in golf, life itself is always about the next shot,” he told The Irish Times in March 2013. Moving on has not been so simple.

Ulster Bank continued its pursuit of Dunne and its debt through the Irish courts and he was adjudicated a bankrupt by the High Court four months later. This left him in the unusual position of being simultaneously bankrupt on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dual bankruptcies

Since then, the dual bankruptcies have become a cat-and-mouse game of legal challenge and counter-challenge in the Irish and US courts, and as far as South Africa where legal attempts have been made to reverse tens of millions of euro of asset transfers to his wife Gayle Killilea, a former gossip columnist.

Efforts to unwind the transfer of a fifth of Dunne’s boom-time fortune – a €100 million gift to his wife in exchange for “love and affection”, he once said – have been fought in Ireland and the US. Strongly challenged by Dunne and Killilea, those actions are most active in the Irish courts now, where Chris Lehane, his official assignee, is embroiled in labyrinthine court proceedings.

Dunne’s lawyers have argued about the draconian nature of the dual bankruptcies, but his own lack of co-operation with his bankruptcy officials in both countries has drawn out his time in bankruptcy.

Last week, a US judge upheld the Connecticut bankruptcy court’s ruling finding Dunne in contempt of court and in violation of a subpoena for failing to hand over emails to his US bankruptcy official. The judge referred to Dunne’s “wholesale refusal” to produce any emails.

On Tuesday, an Irish judge found Dunne’s actions in his Irish bankruptcy process to be “a cynical, spurious attempt to preserve the illusion of co-operation in order to achieve a discharge from bankruptcy”.

In the space of six days, the developer has suffered two major blows to his plan to escape his Tiger-era debts, now more than a decade old.