Lowry says AG witnesses recalled over legal threat

 

FORMER MINISTER Michael Lowry has claimed that the Moriarty tribunal was forced to recall two witnesses from the Attorney General’s office because of the threat of a High Court action.

The Independent Tipperary-North TD, who supports the Government, also condemned the tribunal as a “quasi-judicial legal farce” and claimed the Oireachtas had allowed the inquiry and its senior barristers in particular to become “untouchables”.

He accused senior counsel of overclaiming by €250 a day, yet refunds had not been demanded. If they were social welfare recipients, they would be “hounded and harassed” for repayment.

The former minister for communications also said senior counsel were now paid €2,250 and were also claiming on occasion for Saturdays and Sundays.

Mr Lowry asked Taoiseach Brian Cowen: “How can you justify this expenditure of public funds on an ongoing basis when you’re reducing social welfare, you’re cutting the public service pay bill, you’re taking medical cards from people who deserve them, you’re reducing the health services and you’re reducing funding for our hospitals?”

He was speaking during Taoiseach’s questions about the tribunal. The final report has been delayed again because two witnesses from the Attorney General’s office have been recalled. Mr Cowen told the House that “no date has been set for the hearing”.

Mr Lowry, a central figure in the 13-year-old tribunal’s investigations into the awarding of the mobile phone licence to Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone, said: “The witnesses from the Attorney General’s office were not called back by Mr Justice Moriarty. They were called back because he was forced to call them back because if he didn’t call them back, he would have a High Court case hearing this morning.”

In a sharp attack, the former Fine Gael minister described the tribunal as a “quasi-judicial legal farce” that “has been out of control for years”. Mr Lowry asked Mr Cowen how he could justify “what is ultimately going to be a multi-million cost of this tribunal”.

The Taoiseach told the House that the tribunal had cost his department €38.27 million up to the end of last year and a further €10 million for other departments.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny estimated that with third-party costs, the bill could be more than €100 million.

Mr Lowry asked how the Taoiseach’s officials “could allow senior barristers to be putting in bills to you which are incorrect, which are overstated by €250 a day, which amounted to millions of euro and you didn’t claim it back.

“If it was a social welfare recipient you’d harass them and hound them and make sure the money was paid. I have come to the conclusion, Taoiseach, the officials in your department have allowed this tribunal to become untouchables, particularly the barristers.

“While we’re talking here this morning about the economy being in tatters, we’re still observing and sanctioning the payment to senior counsel every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, which they have drawn for.

“If you look at the invoices going into your department from the tribunal, you will see that senior counsel are paid €2,500, [reduced] now to €2,250 per day and they are claiming for Saturdays and Sundays, in some instances, after 13 years.”

Mr Cowen said: “I am aware that Deputy Lowry obviously has a close involvement and knowledge in this matters and it has gone on for a very, very long time. We wish to see obviously these matters brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible in the interests of everybody”.

The Taoiseach said the length of time it was taking was because of a whole range of issues, “including challenges”.