Businessman says Gallagher collected €5,000 cheque


Candidate Sean Gallagher has said an allegation that he collected a €5,000 cheque for Fianna Fáail from an Armagh businessman and convicted fuel smuggler ahead of a fundraising event is part of "an ongoing smear campaign".

The businessman and convicted fuel smuggler named during last night's presidential election debate as having handed over a €5,000 cheque for Fianna Fáil to Mr Gallagher in 2008 earlier insisted he gave the cheque to Mr Gallagher in advance of a fundraising event on July 1st that year.

Mr Gallagher has accused Sinn Fein of a “dirty tricks” campaign designed at “taking him out” of the race for the presidency. He said the allegation had emerged last week when he began to move ahead in opinion polls.

Mr Gallagher was responding to allegations made by candidate Martin McGuinness in the course of last night’s televised debate on RTÉ's Frontline programme.

During the debate, Mr Gallagher conceded he may have delivered a €5,000 donation from a “convicted criminal and fuel smuggler” Hugh Morgan to Fianna Fáil headquarters three years ago. The amount was in respect of a fundraising event for former taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Mr Gallagher said the week-long "smear campaign" had culminated in the allegation by Martin McGuinness on television last night. During the Frontline debate Mr McGuinness alleged that he, Mr Gallagher, had visited the home of the Armagh man following a 2008 fundraising event for Fianna Fáil to deliver a photograph and that he had collected a cheque on that occasion.

Speaking on RTÉ's Six One news, Mr Gallagher said: "That's an absolute lie. When I challenged Mr McGuinness today he retracted that, but only following the fact that Fianna Fáil came out this morning having checked their records."

He had let some business people know about the fundraising event but he had not collected the cheque from Mr Morgan, he said. The allegation was "an absolute slur".

Asked on the news programme this evening about his spokesman's assertion he had not "solicited" a donation from Fianna Fáil, Mr Gallagher said he was "not sure what my spokesman said". He had asked a number of business people in the area if they wanted to attend the fundraiser, and "one of them obviously recommended Mr Morgan as somebody who might like to attend".

He had told Mr Morgan about the event and had told him he could make a donation and that there was a level of donation of sums up to €5,000.

Fianna Fáil confirmed today the fundraising dinner was held on July 1st, 2008 in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Dundalk. One of those who attended was Hugh Morgan, of Hugh Morgan Fuels Ltd. Records showed Mr Morgan had made a contribution of €5,000 to the party, by way of a cheque dated June 26th, 2008.

That donation was officiallly acknowledged by the party's financial controller in a letter dated June 30th. An official Fianna Fáil receipt was included. The party said its bank had today confirmed the cheque was lodged to its account on June 30th.

Mr Gallagher said this timeline meant he could not have collected any cheque from the man after the event, when I delivered a photograph, which the man had been "very insistent that he wanted".

He said this "refuted" Mr McGuinness's claim and that the Sinn Féin candidate had today "changed his story".

This evening, Mr Morgan issued a statement insisting that Mr Gallagher called to his premises in Armagh on June 27th 2008 to collect the cheque for €5,000 and that he had handed it over personally.

Hugh Morgan said the amount was declared in his company accounts and cleared through his bank on July 1st, 2008.

Mr Morgan said he had first been contacted by phone by Mr Gallagher, who he had never previously met, on June 6th, 2008 to invite him to the fundraiser.

"In the course of the call he requested a donation of €5,000.00 for Fianna Fáil. He advised me that this type of fundraising would replace the annual Galway Tent Fundraiser. In return for the €5,000.00 donation I was promised a private audience with the Taoiseach and I would get a photograph taken with him."

Asked about the matter this morning on the Today with Pat Kenny programme, Mr Gallagher said last night's debate had been an "ambush", "a hatchet job" and that it had been "well orchestrated" by Sinn Féin.

“I stand over everything that I have done as being impeccable with honesty and integrity. Absolutely. I absolutely refute any allegations that will be framed in such a way as to make me, my company or my integrity any way…allow those to be undermined.”

Mr Gallagher said he had called on his campaign team yesterday morning to stay focused on “a positive message about the future, our young people, our strengths, our communities, those with disabilities, small businesses and emigration".

"I am focused on the future of this country and my view will not be diverted by tactics such as this . . . political assassination by Martin McGuinness or anybody else in Sinn Féin”.

If his memory of whether he had delivered a photograph and collected a cheque from the man in question had failed him on live television last night, that was an "honest mistake", he said.

Mr Gallagher said a legal fundraising event had been held for Fianna Fáil in Co Louth, "unlike many of the fundraising events perhaps that Sinn Féin or others have been involved in".

He, along with a number of other local business people, had been contacted with a request that he invite other people to the event. He said he did not make a donation himself, either in a corporate or a personal capacity, either “before, during or after” the event.

He contacted a number of people and did not know the particular man involved in the allegation raised by Mr McGuinness.

He had not asked for any particular amount of money. It was “standard practice” in all political parties to fundraise, Mr Gallagher said.

“Last week, it came to my attention through…once I topped the polls it was obvious from all sides that I was going to come under serious attack as the poll topper. And I was alerted to the fact that I would come under amazing attack from Sinn Féin in the border areas," Mr Gallagher said.

Mr Gallagher said Martin McMcGuinness had “pulled the trigger” with the help of the man who had given over the cheque.

Separately, in an interview with Matt Cooper on Today FM, Mr Gallagher rejected the suggestion that things from his past had emerged to embarrass him

He said he did not accept this and that everything he had done in his life had been done "with the best possible intention" and with "absolute integrity".

"There isn’t anything in my past that will come out and impact on the presidency and on the dignity of the office," he said.

Speaking today, Labour Party presidential candidate Michael D Higgins said Mr Gallagher still had questions to answer in the aftermath of the Frontline debate.

"I believe there's a considerable way to go to satisfactorily answer the questions that are being raised . . . they are questions that it is appropriate be answered fully and completely of any candidate, and I think they are important particularly in this presidency because of the fact that everything is going to depend on reputation," Mr Higgins said. "The public anxiety should be fully satisfied, and that's important."

Mr Higgins said he respected all candidates, but he said it was probably true to say it was now a race between two candidates - Mr Gallagher and himself. He said they came from different backgrounds, had differences in relation to job creation and "fundamental" differences in their vision for the country. "I believe in entrepreneurship but social entrepreneurship."

Mr Higgins said the president had to be "multi-dimensional" and "inter-generational".

The last of the five televised debates was dominated by sustained attacks by audience members and some candidates on Mr Gallagher over his business record and links to Fianna Fáil.

Sinn Féin candidate Martin McGuinness claimed that yesterday he spoke to Mr Morgan, who told him Mr Gallagher had visited his home in order to collect the cheque. Mr Gallagher rejected the claim, and challenged Mr McGuinness to identify his contact.

In the debate, Mr Gallagher said he didn’t want to cast aspersions on the man, then continued: “He’s a convicted criminal, a fuel smuggler, investigated by the Criminal Assets Bureau and rented the office out to Gerry Adams, Martin’s colleague, in the last general election. I don’t want to get involved in this.”

When pushed by Kenny as to whether he had received a cheque from the unnamed individual, Mr Gallagher replied: “I have no recollection of getting a cheque from this guy. I can tell you, let me explain this very simply. I explained that there were two or three people that I asked. I don’t know the man very well that’s in question.”

Mr Gallagher later said that Mr McGuinness had alleged that he had driven to the man’s house “to deliver a photograph of the event and that he gave me a cheque.

“What I have done, I may well have delivered the photograph. If he gave me an envelope I . . . if he gave me the cheque it was made out to Fianna Fáil headquarters and it was delivered and that was that. It was nothing to do with me.”

Asked by Kenny if this meant he had invited a fuel smuggler to a “Fianna Fáil do”, Mr Gallagher said he wasn’t aware of the man’s background at the time, in 2008.

Mr Gallagher said he had invited “two or three” people to the fundraiser, and helped organise a photograph. The event was set up by FF headquarters, and he had been asked as a local businessman to inform those who might like to attend.

Mr Gallagher also came under pressure over a director’s loan for €82,829 from one of his companies that breached company law.

He claimed that no breach had taken place. The money had been placed in the wrong account by his bookkeeper’s secretary. Once his accountant had spotted the mistake and alerted him, the matter was “resolved” within four weeks.

Fine Gael candidate Gay Mitchell said that a clear statement should be made about the issue today.

Speaking on RTE today, Mr Gallagher also defended his business dealings and said that "every single penny" owed by his former firm Smarthomes had been paid back.