High Court exonerates retired Wicklow manager Eddie Sheehy

Judge rules his accuser Donal Ó Laoire ‘not a credible witness’ in illegal dumping case

Former Wicklow County manager Eddie Sheehy who has been exonerated by the High Court of an allegation of corruption. Photograph: Collins

Former Wicklow County manager Eddie Sheehy who has been exonerated by the High Court of an allegation of corruption. Photograph: Collins

 

Eddie Sheehy, the retired manager of Wicklow County Council, has been exonerated by the High Court of an allegation that he was “up to his neck in corruption”.

Mr Justice Richard Humphreys, in a lengthy and stiffly worded judgment, found in favour of Mr Sheehy and against his accuser, Donal Ó Laoire, an environmental consultant who was also authorised officer of the council.

“Having seen and heard the witnesses, I prefer the evidence of Mr Sheehy to that of Mr Ó Laoire,” Mr Justice Humphreys said in his 40-page judgment delivered this morning in the High Court in Dublin.

The case arose out of the finding, in 2001 of an illegal dump in Whitestown in west Wicklow, the largest such dump discovered in the State to date.

In various proceedings relating to the dump, it emerged that the council was a customer of the dump, depositing allegedly large quantities of waste there over many years.

In 2001, Mr Ó Laoire was engaged by the council to investigate the extent of dumping and advise as to what should be done. He devised a scheme, from an idea he said was put to him by the council, to set up a private company to which the council would then award a contract to clean up the dump.

Both the company, and the council, would profit from the venture, he said in evidence.

In sworn testimony to the High Court, Mr Ó Laoire said Mr Sheehy knew of the plan, as did, he claimed, numerous other senior officials, including the director of services, Michael Nicholson.

He said he now realised such a scheme was corrupt.

However, this conflicted with sworn testimony Mr O Laoire gave on earlier occasions in the case. This prompted Mr Sheehy to brand Mr Ó Laoire a liar and perjurer.

In the current proceedings, Brownfield Restoration Ireland Limited, which now owns the dump, is suing the council, claiming the council failed properly to remediate the dump, as it committed to doing in 2009.

Giving judgment today in what is known as Module I of Brownfield’s case, Mr Justice Humphreys dealt with the conflicting claims of Mr Sheehy and Mr Ó Laoire and came down firmly on Mr Sheehy’s side.

“I found Mr Sheehy to be an intelligent witness with a clear understanding of the legal and ethical framework within which he operated,” said the judge.

“His evidence was broadly internally consistent, was broadly consistent with other known facts on the issues on which he conflicted with Mr Ó Laoire. . . and was broadly consistent with his previous testimony. In the few points where he had to correct previous testimony, I find that inadvertence is a much more probable explanation than design for any errors or omissions in his previous evidence.”

The judge said while Mr O Laoire was “an amiable individual” he was also suggestible.

“Overall,” said the judge, “I find Mr Ó Laoire not to be a credible witness and insofar as his evidence conflicts with that of Mr Sheehy. I prefer Mr Sheehy’s, having heard and seen them both.”

Mr Justice Humphreys said Mr Ó Laoire “appeared to have little understanding of the legal and ethical constraints of his position as an authorised officer.”

He said Mr Ó Laoire had brought defamation proceedings against Brownfield “even though he now accepts that the main allegations to which the defamation proceedings relate are true”.

“Mr Ó Laoire has done nothing, even to this day, to face up to the consequences of that contradiction in the context of those defamation proceedings,” said the judge.

As to Mr Ó Laoire’s claims of corruption against Mr Sheehy, the judge ruled: “Mr Ó Laoire’s evidence was inconsistent with his previous testimony and multiple previous version of events he had given in writing both to gardaí, the council (to whom he repeatedly confirmed that he had been told not to pursue the syndicate/consortium) and otherwise.

“He accepts he gave false testimony before. . . Furthermore he became highly suggestible under cross examination, which Mr Sheehy very perceptively described as a ‘Punch and Judy Show’.”

Mr Justice Humphreys said he rejected the notion that the council was involved in Mr Ó Laoire’s scheme to make a profit.

“This scheme was a non-runner from the off,” said the judge. “No motive had been established for the council’s officers to get involved in the alleged conspiracy. I find Mr Sheehy vetoed this scheme for clearly identifiable reasons, that he was not involved in corruption in this matter and has given honest evidence to the court.”

Mr Justice Humphreys scolded both the council and Mr Sheehy for not dealing with the issue sooner.

“It may fairly be said that the council were tardy in dealing with the problems created by Mr Ó Laoire, and that Mr Sheehy should at an earlier stage have ‘joined the dots’ as he put it regarding the extent of Mr O Laoire’s involvement with the syndicate. . .

“But there is a clear dividing line between handling a matter sub-optimally and handling it improperly. I put a certain amount of the delay in dealing with Mr Ó Laoire down to what might be called the ‘breaking distance’.

“That is the time lag between the first glimmer of perception of the need to stop a process and the process actually coming to a final and complete halt.”

But the judge said that the question as to whether the council managed the affair well and badly was “quite separate”. He said Mr Ó Laoire relied for his contentions on “self serving documents created” by himself.

“Mr Ó Laoire’s self-serving material is of little moment, and chimes with his general happy-go-lucky approach of emphasising the sunny side of things and failing to see the overall institutional constraints. Mr Sheehy expressed some regret about not having issued an unambiguous minute scotching the scheme, but in the real world, not every important communication is reduced to writing. . .”

The judge said Mr Ó Laoire’s “serious breaches of duty have caused enormous complications in these proceedings as well as significant loss and expense to the council”.

“All of the claims against the council,” said the judge, “under this heading alleging corruption,mala fides and fraud on the court bring to mind Carl Sagan’s maxim that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’.

Translated into forensic terms, extraordinary claims require adequate evidence, and in this case, that evidence is not only qwell short of adequate but very much to the contrary.”

The case continues