Suspended solicitor urged woman to stay quiet about money he owed her

Declan O’Callaghan pressured client who faced losing her home as a result of unpaid funds

Declan O’Callaghan, of Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, was suspended in July by the High Court. Photograph: Collins

Declan O’Callaghan, of Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, was suspended in July by the High Court. Photograph: Collins

 

Until last Wednesday afternoon, a shy middle-aged Roscommon wife and mother was unsure whether she was destined to lose her family home in the days before Christmas.

But after weeks of living in terror, she learned with huge relief that she would keep her home.

On the other hand, the cause of her problems, suspended Ballaghaderreen solicitor Declan O’Callaghan, will lose his.

The sudden turn of events in the woman’s favour concluded in Mullingar Circuit Court on Thursday.

A debt that had been attached to her home was finally paid off thanks to the arrival of money from O’Callaghan’s legal firm, Kilrane O’Callaghan – money that she had been seeking since reaching a personal injury settlement in April this year in an entirely unrelated case.

Three weeks ago, O’Callaghan told Brendan Steen, the Law Society’s man overseeing the practice since O’Callaghan’s suspension by the High Court in July, that he was trying to source funds to replace money received but then taken by him without client authorisation.

Like so many people unwillingly embroiled in the crisis, the woman, whose name The Irish Times is not publishing, is mortified that her private affairs would be made public. Kilrane O’Callaghan & Co solicitors began life in the early 1990s and, after almost 30 years in business, was the largest, most successful and probably best-known legal firm in Ballaghaderreen, if not the whole county of Roscommon.

Declan O’Callaghan was a pillar of the community and was involved in virtually every local group.

His wife, Mary Devine O’Callaghan, ran the law firm and kept its accounts. She too was influential, in Fianna Fáil locally and nationally, where she was joint national treasurer until the scandal broke.

This week, the High Court froze the O’Callaghans’ personal bank accounts as well as those of the law firm. From yesterday, all of its files were turned over to the Law Society; the practice is no more.

O’Callaghan has agreed to sell his family home in Ballaghaderreen, as well as a one-bedroom apartment on Arran Quay, Dublin, and a townhouse at the Denis O’Brien-owned Quinta do Lago golf resort in Portugal.

He says he is determined to reimburse clients for all money taken and that the Law Society’s compensation fund will not be used.

Unravelling

His daughters, Aoife and Eimear, were this week joined in the Law Society action against their father for, essentially, technical reasons. Both the society and the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, emphasised that no accusation of dishonesty has been levelled against them.

The woman at the centre of the latest chapter in the O’Callaghan story who was in fear of losing her home received a settlement of €212,500 after a 2014 car crash. The money was paid to Kilrane O’Callaghan in May but was not passed on to her.

In the unravelling of O’Callaghan’s reputation in the High Court, her details have not been made public: “This woman has suffered terribly, absolutely terribly,” said a legal source.

She was urged by O’Callaghan, as recently as October, not to say anything about the money he owed her – even though her family faced losing their home in a matter of days without it.

When the imminence of the threat against her home became clear, the Law Society was alerted and the payment owed to her was prioritised by Brendan Steen. The money came through this week. Her home was saved.

Mary Carty, however, did not fare so well.

Eviction

A woman in her seventh decade, she was faced with eviction on June 7th this year when men arrived at the door of her house in The Meadows, near the Fire Station in Ballaghaderreen and built by her brother-in-law, Martin Carty.

Her husband, John, was away in England attending to a family matter and so Mary Carty had to face eviction alone, although what happened was witnessed by townspeople.

Mary and John Carty’s problem was that payment for the purchase of the house became enmeshed in Martin Carty’s dealings with Declan O’Callaghan.

A deposit for the house given to the solicitor was passed on to the vendor – but not the full amount to close the sale. Unbeknown to John and Mary, the house was therefore not purchased and they remained as tenants only. That became clear only when the bailiffs arrived.

Mary stood in the front garden making frantic phone calls, trying to find out what was going on before decamping to a nearby B&B. Her home was not her house, she learned.

Stella Y, another O’Callaghan client equally upset by the possibility of publicity, was so angry with O’Callaghan that she complained last month to the gardaí at Castlerea station.

The complaint was delivered to Garda divisional headquarters in Roscommon town. It also went to the Garda Síochána’s National Economic Crime Bureau in Dublin.

They are now investigating Kilrane O’Callaghan. So, too, are the Revenue Commissioners.

Mrs Y’s case concerns an estate valued at about €377,000 which O’Callaghan was to disperse between three beneficiaries, one of them a ward of court confined to a nursing home.

To date, about €32,000 has been given to each of the three. Without authorisation, O’Callaghan also paid himself €126,450 in fees and costs, leaving the €142,000 to discharge tax liabilities.

“He was using client funds like he was using a cash machine on a Friday evening,” said a legal source. “I’ve seen the ledger card [in the Mrs Y case]; there’s literally about 40 different transactions and literally about two or three a day, and five and six and seven in the week – €3,500, €2,000. . .

“He literally just went for it like I’ll go over to the cash machine and use my card.”

Brian Colleran, a young Ballaghaderreen man who sustained life-altering spinal injuries in a 2009 car crash, agreed a €5.2 million personal injury settlement to cater for his lifelong needs in October 2011.

But O’Callaghan, who acted for him and was known personally to his family, withheld €450,000 of the settlement and did not account for this until very recently, and not to the satisfaction of the Colleran family.

In the High Court on Wednesday, we heard why: O’Callaghan had taken, without authorisation, a solicitor/client charge of €206,000. Equally, he had failed to pay a bill of €118,000 owed to the National Rehabilitation Hospital, which had helped Colleran to adapt to life in a wheelchair.

The bill remains unpaid but, as the High Court was told, the money is now gone.

Signatures

The spectre of forgery was raised before Mr Justice Kelly. This concerned the case of Tracey Connolly, one of two clients (the other being the child of the late John Paul Gallagher) from whom O’Callaghan took money which he then repaid by money from the accounts of other dead clients.

When Connolly discovered what had happened and asked O’Callaghan for an explanation, a document was produced purporting to be a receipt, with her alleged signature giving permission for the deduction.

However, as the High Court heard on Wednesday, in an affidavit sworn by Ms Connolly she said she “had not seen this document” before being shown it in July 2018 after the money had been taken from her late husband’s estate, adding: “I do not believe that I signed it.”

“I was shocked to see that document,” she swore, “I am satisfied that the contents of that document were never explained to me nor even discussed with me.”

Last month, when the Irish Times asked O’Callaghan about Connolly’s affidavit, the law firm Staunton Caulfield, which is run by Aoife O’Callaghan and of which he is, like her, a director, replied: “Tracey Connolly did not depose in the affidavit of 23rd July 2018 that she did not sign the document to which you refer, nor could she have so asserted.”

On Wednesday, the High Court heard otherwise.

The Irish Times has been told authoritatively of several other instances of alleged forging of signatures with the apparent intent of giving the firm access to client funds.

Share transfer

Tom Fleming

Fleming alleges that documents purporting to show his signature linked to an alleged share transfer, which the solicitor claims was payment for the land, is not his signature.

Surrounded by voluminous documents charting the ebb and flow of the battle, Fleming is recovering from recent major heart surgery.

One of the documents is a letter from the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal telling him and his son, Sean Fleming, that in the tribunal’s opinion, O’Callaghan has a case to answer because he:

– purported to act for both the vendor and purchaser in a transaction where there was a clear conflict of interest;

– failed to ensure that the consideration had passed to the vendor company before title passed to the purchaser;

– provided inadequate professional services and was in breach of his duty of care; and

– continues to act for the purchaser in proceedings against him for recovery of the consideration.

The tribunal letter is dated February 8th, 201l; a hearing is expected to take place in January.

It will be the first of several facing O’Callaghan.