Justice must be seen to apply to white collar criminals


BUSINESS OPINION:Society can only function when justice is applied evenly and in an expeditious fashion

BUSINESSMAN JASON Gormley was put behind bars for three years last week in relation to an offence carried out just over one year earlier. One of the victims in the case complained outside the court after sentence was handed down: “After 380 days I have found this the hardest part of the whole thing to accept – that it takes so long to get any type of closure,” she said.

You can see her point. Of course, Gormley’s conviction has nothing to do with the fact that he was a businessman with interests as far flung as Spain and Dubai. It was, unfortunately, for killing another motorist in a head-on collision as he drove his SUV on the wrong side of the road while drunk, and then fleeing the scene.

Ironically, were he being pursued over alleged wrongdoing in his capacity as a businessman, it is highly unlikely he would ever receive a custodial sentence.

A day after Gormley was sentenced, Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy gave an update on the progress of the criminal investigation into the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank. Almost two years after its collapse, he said he expected the Director of Public Prosecutions to be in a position by the end of the year to decide on the question of criminal charges.

However, there is no guarantee that charges will follow. White collar convictions in Ireland are notable more by their absence than their event. In the case of a recent exception, the jailing of businessman Donal Rigney was for contempt of court rather than any underlying fraud.

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern, addressing the same Garda passing-out ceremony in Templemore as the commissioner, cautioned about the need to obtain hard evidence in the Anglo case.

Hard evidence in alleged white collar crime has proven remarkably difficult to unearth, and delay in determining the facts in incidents of alleged wrongdoing in corporate Ireland is endemic.

One has only to read the reports, also last week, of the progress or lack of it at the Moriarty tribunal. The tribunal is currently inquiring into events around the awarding of the second mobile phone licence in the State to a consortium headed by Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone.

That licence was awarded in October 1995. The tribunal was established in 1997 to examine broader allegations of political corruption. In 2002, it turned its attention to the mobile phone licence. Its preliminary findings, issued in late 2008, have come under sustained attack and the lead consultant on the process last week said its findings had been undermined by a flawed working hypothesis.

Worse, Michael Andersen said the tribunal had “little interest in getting down to what happened in the competition in 1995”.

The tribunal has dragged on for so long that former minister Michael Lowry last week informed it that he could no longer afford legal representation. Mr Lowry is not one of the little people. A serving politician on the national stage, the former minister also controls a refrigeration business. If he cannot fund legal representation in a matter with the potential to seriously damage him, what prospects for smaller business owners, or even middle-ranking bank salarymen?

Society can only function when justice is applied evenly and in an expeditious fashion. Right or wrong, there is a view in Ireland now that the application of justice is uneven, and that those who took decisions which ultimately ran our economy onto the rocks will not answer for their actions.

This is not to pass judgment on the rights or wrongs of individuals in the cases under investigation. For many, allegations of wrongdoing – or even just a general public perception of it – leave reputations in tatters and lives on hold, sometimes for years. In other jurisdictions, people can serve their sentences and emerge to restart their lives faster than the Irish legal system comes to a conclusion.

Mr Ahern, in his comments last week, was also correct to note that for all the assertions of bankers facing a much tougher regime in the United States, no prosecutions have yet been brought over the collapse of Lehman Brothers, more than three months ahead of that of Anglo.

But companies and executives have been called to account for behaviour up to and during the meltdown in global financial services, and cases have been settled – generally with financial penalties.

Since 1990, the Oireachtas has passed 21 separate criminal justice Acts – compared with just nine between the foundation of the State and 1990. Everything from terrorism to shoplifting has been legislated for in that time. As we battled with our financial crisis this year, a Criminal Justice Bill turned its attention to the issue of begging.

Now is a fitting time to focus on how our laws could more effectively deal with white collar crime – for the benefit both of those left in a legal limbo of investigation, and for wider society, which ultimately pays the price when things go wrong.