Newspaper report on contract 'a lie', Leech tells court

 

COMMUNICATIONS consultant Monica Leech told the High Court yesterday she has spent 4½ years trying to clear her name of false allegations that she had an affair with a government minister.

Ms Leech described as “a lie” a newspaper report that she secured a contract with the Department of the Environment in controversial circumstances. She won the contract “on merit” following an open competitive process, she said.

She was giving evidence on the second day of her libel action against Independent Newspapers over Evening Heraldcoverage of her work in 2004 as special adviser to then environment minister Martin Cullen.

Remarking there “may be something of the elephant in the corner” on the issue, her counsel Declan Doyle SC asked Ms Leech: “Did you have an affair with Mr Cullen?” Ms Leech said she had not been having an affair with him, and had spent the last few years trying to get justice from the Herald. “At this stage, for you to ask me about the elephant in the corner, it shows the damage that has been done that you feel the need to clear that up,” she said.

Ms Leech is suing over articles published in eight editions of the Evening Heraldbetween November and December 2004. She claims they falsely alleged she got government public relations contracts because she was having an affair with Mr Cullen.

Ms Leech (49), Otteran Place, South Parade, Waterford, has brought the proceedings against Independent Newspapers (Irl) Ltd, which denies libel. It has also pleaded there are legitimate questions on whether various contracts secured by Ms Leech or her firm were influenced by her alleged connection with Mr Cullen.

Yesterday, Ms Leech told the court a new PR business she had launched with a partner never got off the ground due to the “catastrophe” of the Heraldarticles.

She said that in 2000 she had been invited to promote projects on behalf of the Office of Public Works (OPW). Mr Cullen then had responsibility for the OPW as a junior minister.

When she saw the first of the Heraldarticles on November 30th, 2004, she felt it was “seedy”, sexist and demeaning in describing her as “the pretty PR executive”. “I felt completely and utterly offended to the very core.”

She was disgusted that somebody would make up a controversy about her in “a seedy, dirty little campaign, typical of tabloid tramps”. “I do not know what the motivations were but I was hand-picked and they were wrecking my life, and they just did not give a damn about it.”

The use of the words “PR girl” in another story were insulting and degrading, she said. It suited the Heraldto use “girl” as she, a then 44-year-old woman, would not be as likely to be having an affair with the Minister, she said.

When Mr Cullen became a senior minister in 2003, she said she met him by accident in Waterford, and he asked her to provide services for the Department of the Environment as he was not happy with the tone and style of communications in his new department.

Hers was the only company to be offered a six-month contract and she was told, after the six months, she would have to compete with other firms for a longer one. The Herald’s claims that this longer contract was secured in controversial circumstances was a lie.

Ms Leech said she felt sorry for Mr Cullen’s estranged wife, who was “dragged” into the Heraldstories. She had not responded to the Herald’s request for comments because she knew this would be oxygen for their campaign.

The articles continued to get “worse and worse”, she said. They were “a tsunami of lies” which people up and down the country started to believe. She saw staff in a hotel “having a great old laugh” at the story about her. A woman in a restaurant struck her. The hearing continues before Mr Justice Eamon de Valera and a jury.