Siteserv inquiry ‘may be delayed’ by legal challenge from firm linked to Denis O’Brien

Judge leading investigation into controversial sale issues warning in latest report

A challenge taken by a firm linked to Denis O’Brien represents the biggest potential hurdle to the timely completion of the Siteserv inquiry, according to the judge leading the investigation. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

A challenge taken by a firm linked to Denis O’Brien represents the biggest potential hurdle to the timely completion of the Siteserv inquiry, according to the judge leading the investigation. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

A legal challenge taken by a company linked to Denis O’Brien represents the biggest potential hurdle to the timely completion of the inquiry into the sale of Siteserv to the businessman, according to the judge leading the investigation.

In the latest progress report on the inquiry into the controversial sale, published yesterday, Judge Brian Cregan said that High Court proceedings taken by Island Capital “could pose a significant obstacle to the commission [of investigation]’s ability to complete its work by its proposed end date.

“In particular, the commission will not be in a position to complete its final report until such time as any issues arising from the judicial review proceedings have been finally resolved.”

The proceedings relate to issues of privilege over a document which the commission has sought to retain, and whether it can be reviewed at a later stage in light of new evidence. The report also states that a second issue being challenged relates to the meaning of the phrase “not commercially sound”, which is included in the commission’s terms of reference.

“[Island Capital] takes issue with the definitions relied on in interpreting the phrase ‘not commercially sound’,” according to the report. The company is also taking issue with the timing of a note on how the commission was interpreting the phrase.

The commission was appointed in 2015 to investigate the sale of Siteserv to a company linked to Mr O’Brien, which involved a write-down of €110 million in debt. Issues relating to the sale were raised in the Dáil by TDs Catherine Murphy and Pearse Doherty, leading to the establishment of the commission.

Unprecedented detail

The commission has been granted another extension, to the end of March 2020. In its sixth interim report, the inquiry revealed unprecedented levels of detail about its work to date and its projected final cost to the State. However, Mr Justice Cregan said that he was not in a position to deliver any interim findings until oral evidence had concluded.

The report shows that Mr O’Brien has given evidence to the commission, as have his associates Leslie Buckley, Liam McGrath and Dermot Hayes. Advisers to IBRC, underbidders, Siteserv and employees of all parties have given evidence, as has Department of Finance official Des Carville, who was previously an employee of Davy Stockbrokers, who acted as an adviser to Siteserv.

Mr Justice Cregan estimates in the report that the final cost of the inquiry could be up to €14 million. However, this could be delayed by High Court proceedings, and “involves a substantial degree of uncertainty” arising from the issue of future costs.

The commission notes that several witnesses have argued that they do not believe their costs are being adequately catered for by guidelines covering the inquiry, and that these could be challenged at a later date. He says that estimates of costs for the inquiry ranging from €30 million to as high as a figure of €100 million, which was suggested by one witness, are wide of the mark.