Covanta adviser played golf at FG fundraiser

 

An acquaintance of Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan says he never met Mr Hogan about Poolbeg

AN ESTATE agent and developer who has raised funds for Fine Gael was hired by American company Covanta to progress its controversial plans for the Poolbeg municipal waste incinerator in Dublin, The Irish Times has learned.

Arthur French, a leading figure in Kildare GAA circles who has played golf with Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, is believed to have been engaged by Covanta to ensure that hurdles facing its Poolbeg project were overcome, according to sources.

A Covanta spokesman said Mr French “is one of a number of consultants retained by the company to help us progress our project . . . He has been advising the company since last year and was retained to assist on a variety of commercial issues, including financing.”

Mr French said he had “nothing to hide”. He was advising Covanta on private equity funding and had not been hired because he knew Mr Hogan, he said, adding: “I know an awful lot of politicians better than Phil.”

He also said that he had “never met him” in relation to the Poolbeg incinerator project. “There was no need to meet Phil Hogan, he had his mind made up and so had the Government. I don’t think there was any need for arm-twisting on that one.”

Mr French said he had “never raised one shilling” for Fine Gael.

When it was put to him that his company, French Estates, had sponsored fourballs at the party’s fundraisers in the K Club, he said he had done the same for Fianna Fáil and Labour.

An e-mail query to the Minister asking if he had any dealings with Mr French in relation to the Poolbeg incinerator project and if he could confirm that Mr French was a friend of his and was also a fund-s also a fundraiser for Fine Gael went unanswered.

Mr Hogan met Covanta shortly after taking office as Minister.

He also met representatives of the local community and Dublin city manager John Tierney, but he declined to meet the Irish Waste Management Association, which opposes the project.

On July 8th, the Minister dropped a levy on incineration proposed by his predecessor, former Green Party leader John Gormley, who also opposed the Poolbeg plan. This had been one of Covanta’s key demands and was welcomed by the company.

Mr Gormley complained that the dramatic change in policy was “put through on the final day of the Dáil term” before its summer recess.

“The international review of best waste-management practices which I commissioned was simply discarded.”

The former minister said Covanta had made it clear that the €350 million Poolbeg project would not go ahead if there was a levy on incineration. With the levy threat lifted, it was able to proceed with plans to finalise financing for the project.

When it was brought to Mr Gormley’s attention that further lobbying had been done – including an intervention by US ambassador Dan Rooney – he said: “I suspected as much . . . It leaves a very bad taste in the mouth, but that’s how you play hardball.”

In July 2010, Mr French was involved in Fine Gael’s eastern regional golf classic at the K Club in Straffan, Co Kildare.

A major fundraiser for the party, it attracted sponsorship from companies – including several property developers – as well as individual players.

The golf fundraisers – also held at Adare Manor in Co Limerick and Moor Park near London – contributed substantially to Fine Gael’s €3 million “election war-chest”.

Mr French’s company, French Estates, was among the regular sponsors at the K Club.

At the Fine Gael fundraiser, Mr French was one of those taking part in a fourball sponsored by O’Flynn Construction of Cork, along with its principal, Michael O’Flynn, and former Kerry GAA star Mick O’Dwyer.

Mr Hogan was on another fourball team.

The Leixlip-based estate agent also acted for businessman Michael Smurfit and developer Gerry Gannon – joint owners of the K Club – in a number of property deals and developed two schemes of luxury houses and apartments on its extensive grounds.

Mr French lives in Churchfields, which is described as a “private enclave of detached houses . . . in one of Ireland’s most iconic and prestigious golf and country clubs”. He also served as captain of the K Club.

With the Government committed to banning corporate donations, Fine Gael did not hold any fundraising golf classics this summer.

The Minister handling the legislation to give effect to the ban and to introduce registration for political lobbyists is Mr Hogan.

Poolbeg timeline

December 1999:Poolbeg is identified by consultants as the optimal site for a municipal incinerator processing up to 450,000 tonnes of waste per annum. Local residents pledge to fight it, backed by Green Party TD John Gormley.

August 2002:Martin Cullen, then minister for the environment, floats a new “fast-track” planning regime for all infrastructure projects, including waste-management facilities; this is opposed by then minister for justice and Progressive Democrats TD Michael McDowell.

September 2004:Dublin City Council, one of the four local authorities seeking to progress the Poolbeg project, suffers its first reverse when councillors vote overwhelmingly against going ahead with it. They are told by management that their decision is “out of order”.

October 2004:Using powers under the 2001 Waste Management Act, the council’s management proceed to seek tenders for a public-private partnership (PPP) scheme to build and operate the incinerator. Elsam, a Danish company, emerges as the winner.

May 2006:The council’s management announces that it will apply to An Bord Pleanála under the new Strategic Infrastructure Act for a 600,000-tonne incinerator at Poolbeg. Among the 2,600 objectors are local TDs Michael McDowell, Ruairí Quinn of Labour and John Gormley.

February 2007:Elsam pulls out of the project after being taken over by another Danish firm, Dong Energy, which queries its viability and says it “is not able to the meet the terms of the PPP”. Dong seeks to introduce Covanta, a US waste management company, as a partner.

June 2007:Gormley becomes minister for the environment and immediately begins reviewing what options are open to him to halt the project – although he is debarred from interfering with the planning process.

September 2007:Following the Bord Pleanála oral hearing and in advance of its decision on the planning application, the council signs a contract with Dublin Waste to Energy Ltd, a consortium formed by Dong and Covanta, for the as yet unapproved Poolbeg project.

November 2007:An Bord Pleanála approves the incinerator subject to 13 conditions. Three days later, the Environmental Protection Agency issues a draft licence for Poolbeg. After an oral hearing in April 2008, a full licence was finally issued in December 2008.

June 2009:Gormley issues a draft directive under the 1996 Waste Management Act seeking to cap the volume of municipal waste that could be sent for incineration.

November 2009:The Irish Waste Management Association claims the proposed incinerator is “grossly oversized”.

December 2009:As preliminary site works start at Poolbeg, Mr Justice Liam McKechnie quashes the new Dublin waste plan and upbraids council management for “massaging” consultants’ reports to support the change of policy.

February 2010:The ESRI, in a report commissioned by Dublin City Council, says there is “no underlying rationale” for Gormley’s attempt to cap incineration.

March 2010:Gormley proposes waste-disposal levies of up to €120 a tonne for incineration and landfill. If this were to become law, the viability of the Poolbeg incinerator would be undermined and the now Covanta-led consortium would be unable to raise financing for it.

July 2010:It emerges that the consortium needs a foreshore licence for the proposed development and it is up to Gormley to decide whether to grant it. Fine Gael environment spokesman Phil Hogan calls on him to step aside because of an alleged “conflict of interest”.

October 2010:Amid concerns over the cost of the contract with Covanta, city councillors are told the council would have to supply 320,000 tonnes of waste annually or face penalties under a “put or pay” clause.

July 2011:Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan drops Gormley’s proposed levy on incineration. Covanta declares that the political situation here had “changed totally” and it could now finalise a financial package for the Poolbeg project, which could cost €400 million.