Whistleblower auctioneer Gabriel Dooley was manoeuvred out of €4m as Bray Council benefited from land sale.
By Frank Connolly
A prominent auctioneer in county Wicklow has made serious allegations against politicians and public officials over their dealings with property developers Sean Mulryan and Sean Dunne over many years.
Gabriel Dooley has emerged as a whistleblower who has threatened to expose the controversial backdrop to multi-billion property deals in the county since the 1990s which helped to make Mulryan and Dunne among Ireland’s richest men before the financial, property and banking collapse of recent years.
At the core of his complaints, some of which were aired at a recent meeting of Wicklow County Council – prompting a walkout by both then Cathaoirleach, Jimmy O’Shaughnessy, and the acting county manager, Brian Doyle, – is a claim that he was done out of some €4 million owed to him by Mulryan in connection with the unsuccessful development of a site in Bray town centre.
The two-acre site controlled by Mulryan vehicle, Florentine Properties Ltd (FPL), was sold to Bray Town Council for €1.95 million last year after a planning permission for both to co-develop an 80,000 sq ft retail centre, 85 apartments and 500 underground car spaces, for which planning permission was granted in 2007, was not pursued.
Dooley, who had a significant stake in FPL, spent some 15 years on the assembly of the lands for Mulryan’s company which eventually acquired 62% of the town-centre site, with the council owning the remainder. As the joint venture plan came to fruition in 2005, Dooley was offered €5 million for his shares in the company with a down-payment of €1 million and the balance to be paid on completion of the shopping centre or on disposal of the lands.
While the property collapse put paid to the plans of Mulryan and the Council, it was the manner in which ownership of the property was subsequently transferred to Bray Town Council that has prompted a litany of complaints by Dooley.
Among them is a demand for an investigation into whether a decision last year to re-zone some 30 acres controlled by Mulryan at the massive Charlesland development in Greystones from employment to residential use, inflating its value from some €80,000 per acre to €1million an acre, was connected to the Bray deal. The decision to increase the residential component to accommodate an additional 350 houses at Charlesland was made on the advice of senior officials and with the support of councillors in the area.
Dooley told Village that FF leader on the council and chairman of the planning committee, Councillor Pat Vance told him the two were connected. Vance has denied this.
The Charlesland scheme of 1800 houses and apartments was developed in the mid-2000s by Zapi Ltd, a joint venture between Mulryan and Dunne.
Dooley has also asked whether the recent return to Mulryan of a massive (if unspecified) bond which the developer paid to Wicklow County Council on the construction of the 1800 homes at Charlesland several years ago, the biggest development in the history of Wicklow County Council, is linked to the Florentine transaction.
He also claims that when his own property business ran into difficulties, following the collapse, in late 2011 he met his bankers, Anglo Irish Bank, who wanted to know when he was going to get the €4 million he was owed by Mulryan. By this time, the distressed assets of Mulryan’s main property vehicle, Ballymore Properties, were in the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) which was seeking to get the best value for the Irish exchequer from their disposal.
Dooley told the bank’s executives in 2012 that he was going to chase Mulryan for the money through legal action if necessary. According to information obtained by Dooley under Data Protection legislation the detail of the conversation with his banker found its way from Anglo via NAMA to then senior Ballymore executive, Barry Hickey. According to the email discovered by Dooley the bank told Hickey that “GD (Gabriel Dooley) is under water” and “GD is going to sue you”. Following his receipt of the emails from NAMA, Hickey arranged to meet with Dooley.
“We’ve always classed you as a friend of Ballymore”, Dooley recalls being told by Hickey who had been somewhat shocked to hear through his NAMA contact about the threat of legal action.
It was clear that NAMA was concerned that as the holder of Ballymore’s assets and guarantees it could have been liable for any adverse court decision on the €4 million debt.
“I went to see Hickey at their head office in Lucan two weeks later and he said he wanted to tell me two things. The first was that he wanted to make me an offer…. of €100,000. Then he said; ‘I’m leaving in two weeks’. I refused the offer”, Dooley told Village.
In May 2012, he met Mulryan and Ballymore executive Brian Clarke in the Berkeley Court Hotel where once again he was offered a settlement, this time of an even smaller €75,000.
“I told them that I had spent 18 years of my life helping them with the Charlesland and Florentine developments and that I’d rather starve than accept what I considered was an insult. They later came back with an offer of €500,000 which I also rejected”, Dooley said.
By this time half a million euro would go nowhere near solving his own property debts.
At the Berkeley Court meeting, Mulryan first indicated that Dooley would get nothing if a receiver was put into Florentine Properties Ltd. Dooley is concerned at the extent to which Mulryan seemed to be influencing NAMA’s approach to him and the receivership as it turned out that the shareholding contract Dooley had signed in 2005, at the height of the boom, included a clause that receivership would make his shares worthless.
“He said if you don’t take the money I will put a receiver in and you will get nothing. I replied that if you put a receiver in I will get you in the long grass”, Dooley recalled.
Six months later, receiver Grant Thornton and auctioneers Knight Frank were appointed.
Events took a further unusual turn when instead of publicly advertising and marketing the site (no ‘for sale’ sign was placed) now valued at between €3 and €4 million, a private deal was struck with Bray Town Council which purchased it for €1.95 million in a sale completed just last year.
What was also unusual, according to Dooley was the role of Councillor Pat Vance, the long- time chairman of the planning committee of Wicklow County Council who, he claims, was actively involved in negotiations surrounding the transaction. Dooley has also asked whether the deal was in any way related to a re-zoning of lands at Charlesland last September which benefited Zapi Ltd.
The re-zoning was included in a local area plan (LAP) approved by Wicklow County Council last September. The vote involving a material alteration to the LAP for Greystones-Delgany and Kilcoole was proposed by Fine Gael leader on the council, George Jones, and seconded by his FF counterpart, Vance. Greystones-based independent councillor, Tommy Fortune, said that he had no record of any detailed discussions at the area meeting of councillors before the September vote of Wicklow County Council.
“It would appear that all the relevant information was not put to us before this vote was taken last December”, said Fortune.
Jones, who has now retired from the council, said that the decision was largely about putting the County Development Plan into effect and there were no amendments put by councillors to the proposals by planners. Vance told Village that we should take Dooley’s complaints with a “pinch of salt”. He said that all the zoning decisions were in compliance with “good planning practice” and that “nobody has done anything wrong”.
The Charlesland re-zoning allows Zapi to build an additional 350 houses on 30 acres at the upmarket Charlesland development and increases the value of the land to €1 million an acre from the €80k an acre it was worth when it was previously zoned ‘E’ for employment, or industrial use. It also includes a potentially lucrative proposal to build a primary school and, offices and enterprise centre and other facilities on the 80 acre site.
Vance has a long history in relation to the Charlesland development and was introduced by Dooley to Sean Dunne in Bray as far back as 2004. Dunne, Mulryan, Dooley and Vance dined together a few months later in Dobbins restaurant in Dublin when maps of the area outlining the developers’ plans were discussed during a meeting which lasted several hours, according to Dooley. Independent Councillor, Tommy Cullen, told a recent meeting of Wicklow County Council: “I am not going to have a situation where the planning issues of this council are being decided or discussed in Dobbin’s restaurant”.
Vance refused to confirm his attendance at this meeting when asked at the recent council meeting which discussed Dooley’s controversial claims and when he spoke to Village.
In respect of the Dobbin’s meeting in 2004, Vance told Village that he was “28 years with the Council and I have attended meetings with a lot of people”. He refused to confirm whether maps of Charlesland were discussed at the alleged meeting with Mulryan and Dunne. He also defended the return of the bond to Zapi last year, which he proposed at council, as it was recommended by senior officials. He said the re-zoning of lands at Charlesland was also advanced by officials and agreed by area councillors before he seconded the motion at Wicklow County Council last September. He knows nothing of any connection to the Florentine purchase, as alleged by Dooley.
He said that while Dooley’s claims are “totally false” he would have some sympathy with the auctioneer if there is any basis to the assertion that he was done out of €4 million owed to him in connection with the Florentine scheme.
Dooley had originally identified the potential, and assembled much of the 200 acres of properties at Charlesland from local farmers and others in the mid-1990s. He was privy to the manner in which Dunne unexpectedly gained a foothold in the massive scheme originally controlled by Mulryan and Ballymore.
The original development was made possible by the installation of a new Greystones sewerage scheme to cater for up to 30,000 people and steered by former county manager, Blaise Treacy, who has enjoyed a long association with Mulryan. The latter’s company name is drawn from his home base in Ballymore Eustace in west Wicklow.
When plans were announced for roads and other infrastructure Mulryan, with the assistance of Anglo Irish Bank (whose then chief executive Sean Fitzpatrick lives nearby), purchased option agreements on the lands identified by Dooley, paying large deposits, with the balance due on their successful re-zoning by Wicklow County Council.
Dunne got into the action by gaining control of some key sites and eventually formed Zapi in a joint venture with Mulryan to develop the overall scheme. It appears that Dunne was provided with useful information on Dooley and Mulryan’s acquisition strategy through his financial and political connections. Vance advised Dooley, according to the latter, to tell Zapi to hold back his planning application for 600 houses at Charlesland as he had received advance information about a pending government decision concerning housing density.
As a result of the changes, Zapi was able to apply for up to 1800 houses, substantially increasing its profit margins. (There is no suggestion that there was anything improper in Vance’s advice in this matter).
Similarly, the loosening of provisions for social housing during the boom years meant that no social and affordable housing was built at Charlesland.
In exchange for his assistance in the assembly of the Charlesland properties, Dooley was promised by Mulryan that his Delgany-based auctioneering practice would get the house sales on top of the commission he received for securing the land deals. He was then told he would have to share them with Savilles (formerly HOK) and later told by Dunne that he was getting none of the commission on the sale of the hundreds of upmarket 3 bedroom homes built on the scheme.
Another controversy that continues to rock the council surrounds 3.5 acres of land at Three Trouts adjoining Charlesland which senior officials sought to obtain through a compulsory purchase order (CPO) some years ago. They claimed that it was required for social housing, despite claims to An Bord Pleanála by the then landowner, John Nolan,that the land was on a flood plain.
In an echo of Dooley’s recent allegations the landowner, since deceased, also claimed that the real reason for the purchase was to facilitate road access to lands at Charlesland owned by Zapi, an assertion denied by the council officials. No plans for social housing have been advanced.
The Three Trouts CPO featured in an unsuccessful defamation action taken by three councillors against the county manager, Eddie Sheehy, last year. While an independent report carried out by senior counsel, Seamus Woulfe, into the CPO found no evidence of inappropriate behaviour by senior officials the intervention by Dooley has encouraged sceptical members of the council to re-open the affair. Dooley’s allegations also threaten to re-open a series of questions about the relationship between senior council officials, some councillors and Zapi among other issues.
The auctioneer is looking for his slice of the cake and has emerged from the undergrowth, as he threatened, to pursue Mulryan for what he believes he is owed from the Florentine shares – by exposing what he claims is the underhand manner in which the lands were placed in receivership and then sold to Bray Town Council in an apparent secret deal with senior council officials and public representatives.
He recently sent a letter and a series of thirty-three questions to then chairman, Jimmy O’ Shaughnessy, which provoked stormy exchanges at a recent meeting of Wicklow County Council and in which he has made a series of allegations against county manager, the already embattled Eddie Sheehy, director of services Des O’Brien and planning committee chairman, Pat Vance over their alleged dealings with Mulryan.
With the major controversy over the deaths of two firefighters heaping financial pain and criticism on council management, and previous disputes over the use of Wicklow as an illegal dumping ground for millions of tonnes of waste from Dublin costing the public some €4 million to clean up so far, and over other sensitive re-zoning decisions, the emergence from the long grass of Gabriel Dooley once again turns an unwanted spotlight on public affairs in Wicklow. Answers to the 33 questions are eagerly awaited.
The Cathaoirleach has now referred the matter to the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) with which Dooley is co-operating. Meanwhile, requests from Vance and senior council officials, Eddie Sheehy and Des O’Brien, to Dooley requesting him to withdraw his claims have been refused.
A spokesperson for Wicklow County Council said she would no tbe commenting on Dooley’s clains and Ballymore did not respond to queries