Businessman Denis O'Brien knew about the protected disclosure made by former Independent News & Media (INM) chief executive Robert Pitt, before the board of the media group was told, according to a court document.
Mr Pitt made a protected disclosure to INM in November 2016 about a proposed sale of Mr O’Brien’s radio station, Newstalk, to INM.
During discussions in October 2016, Mr Pitt was advised that the radio station might have a value of up to €14 million, approximately €20 million less than was being sought. The sale never went ahead.
The purchase of Newstalk was promoted by the then chairman of INM, Leslie Buckley, according to an affidavit before the High Court from the Director of Corporate Enforcement, Ian Drennan. Mr Buckley is a close business associate of Mr O'Brien.
According to Mr Drennan’s affidavit, there was an exchange of text messages on November 11th, 2016, between Mr Buckley and Mr O’Brien about Mr Pitt’s protected disclosure.
The INM board was not aware of the matter until 10 days later, on November 21st, when it established a committee to investigate. The committee met on November 22nd and November 23rd. It heard from Mr Buckley but did not invite Mr Pitt to appear before it.
No further action
The affidavit goes on to say the committee came to a unanimous decision on November 23rd that there was no evidence of any matter that constituted a serious concern for INM, and decided to advise the board to take no further action.
Mr Drennan, in his affidavit, described this as “wholly unsatisfactory and inadequate” and said there was a failure to appreciate the gravity of the situation.
The affidavit quotes a text from INM director Len O’Hagan to Mr Buckley on November 26th where he said: “I know it’s galling for us but I believe we now need to write the cheque and be done with him.” Mr Buckley replied that he had the INM lawyers working on it.
Mr O’Brien later sent a message to Mr Buckley that said: “This storm will pass. I know it is awful for you, but we need to play the long game. This will put pressure on the two malcontents... Ultimately we may have to get them out and pay them. Best regards, Denis.”
After the committee’s decision, Mr Pitt threatened legal action, and an independent review was established. It did not come to a definitive finding on the disclosures because of the gulf between what was said by Mr Buckley and by senior management. Mr Pitt then made a protected disclosure to Mr Drennan.
Mr O’Brien did not respond to a request for a comment. Mr Buckley has said he will “robustly defend” himself against any allegation made by Mr Drennan. A spokesman for INM had no comment.