The Minister for Housing, and recent FG leadership contender, Simon Coveney, appointed a former senior Council official to investigate an allegation of financial malpractice at Cavan County Council (CCC), even though the former official had been accused in the High Court of being “up to his neck in corruption”.
In March, Coveney and his department officials asked former County Manager of Wicklow County Council (WCC), Eddie Sheehy, to examine an allegation that fake invoices were issued by a senior official at the Cavan local authority for work that was not done.
At the time his investigation commenced, Sheehy was a key witness in an ongoing legal case brought by waste operator, Brownfield Restoration Ltd., against Wicklow County Council about illegal dumping at a major site in west Wicklow.
In the case, Brownfield alleged that WCC had itself dumped over 100,000 tonnes of illegal, including medical and toxic, waste at the biggest illegal dump in the country, at Whitestown. An allegation was made by a former Authorised Officer of the Council that he was involved in a corrupt enterprise to set up a private company to remediate the site and to make up to €30m and that the plan had been endorsed by Sheehy and another senior official at WCC, Michael Nicholson.
Donal O’Laoire, Authorised Officer of the Council and an environmental consultant, told the High Court during his evidence earlier this year that Sheehy knew about and supported his plans to establish the private operation and “was up to his neck in corruption”.
In turn, Sheehy described O’Laoire as a ‘liar and a perjurer’ when he subsequently gave evidence. During this time, Sheehy was working on the allegation that a senior official at Cavan County Council (CCC) had approved payment invoices for a least one private service-provider for work that was never carried out. In early April, Sheehy met senior CCC officials and interviewed Council staff at a Cavan hotel during his inquiries into the allegation concerning the issuance of false invoices.
A month later, Judge Richard Humphreys rejected the claims made by O’Laoire in relation to Sheehy’s involvement in his ‘corrupt’ remediation operation and described the former county manager as “an intelligent witness with a clear understanding of the legal and ethical framework within which he operated”.
“His evidence was broadly internally consistent, was broadly consistent with other known facts on the issues on which he conflicted with Mr Ó Laoire… and was broadly consistent with his previous testimony. In the few points where he had to correct previous testimony, I find that inadvertence is a much more probable explanation than design for any errors or omissions in his previous evidence”, Judge Humphreys said, in his partial judgement in the case on 11th May last. Among the inadvertent errors Sheehy had made was to wrongly inform the High Court that the first time he had heard of O’Laoire’s plan to set up a private company to remediate the site was in 2009. The court heard that Sheehy had informed the Garda in 2007 of his knowledge of the proposals.
The judge described O’Laoire as “an amiable individual” who was also “suggestible” and “appeared to have little understanding of the legal and ethical constraints of his position as an authorised officer”.
His ‘exoneration’ of Sheehy came as a huge relief to Council and Department officials even though the judge also ruled that WCC was in breach of EU law for its illegal dumping at Whitestown and the case continues. It was a setback for Brownfield which is suing the Council for failing to remediate the site as it promised the High Court it would do in 2009.
The judgment also averted a potential embarrassment to Coveney in the middle of this campaign for the party leadership as it would have been difficult for him to defend Sheehy’s appointment to the Cavan inquiry if the former Wicklow County Manager had an adverse High court ruling made against him.
Asked about his appointment of Sheehy to investigate corruption while the former county manager was himself the subject of serious allegations in the High Court, Coveney said during a visit to Wicklow days after the judgment that Sheehy had been “exonerated” in the court,
Asked by local journalist and editor of the Wicklow Times, Shay Fitzmaurice, why he appointed Sheehy given the litany of complaints and allegations surrounding illegal dumping, planning and rezoning irregularities in the county over many years. Coveney said he planned to appoint a senior counsel to review the huge files he had seen on the matter.
Meanwhile, judgment is awaited in the appeal by Wicklow Councillor, Tommy Cullen and former Councillor Barry Nevin, against a Circuit Court decision that also exonerated Sheehy and WCC. They have alleged that they were defamed in a press statement issued by the former County Manager in 2013 in regard to a planning matter relating to a major residential development near Greystones. The hearings before Justice Marie Baker started over a year ago.