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Phil Hogan promised to spend €50m to avoid corruption embarrassment to Wicklow County Council

The former Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, made a promise he did not and could not deliver to spend €50m of public money on the remediation of an illegal waste dump. This was in order to avoid the emergence of damaging evidence in the High Court about the role of Wicklow County Council (WCC) in the management of the site.

In recent weeks, the High Court has heard that the former Wicklow County Manager, Eddie Sheehy, was aware of plans by an authorised officer of the Council to set up a private company in order to make up to €30m in profits from the remediation of the huge waste site at Whitestown in West Wicklow.

In the case, brought by Brownfield Restoration Ltd against WCC before Justice Richard Humphreys, former authorised officer, Donal O’Laoire, has claimed that he was involved in a corrupt attempt to make huge profits by setting up a private company to clean up the site and that he was operating under the direction and with the full knowledge of senior officials, including Sheehy.

O’ Laoire has admitted to the court that his actions were corrupt and that Mr Sheehy “was up to his neck in it” when he put forward a proposal to set up a company, Environmental Remediation Ltd, and sought to purchase the dump from landowner, John O’Reilly, in 2002. O’Laoire said he had discussed the plan with Sheehy and then WCC Director of Services, Michael Nicholson, after he had been employed by the Council to identify the nature, source and amount of polluted material on the site in 2001.

O’Laoire admitted that he was the person authorised by the Council to inspect the site and identify the polluters, including the role of O’Reilly, in allowing the waste dumping on his land for payment, over many years. O’Laoire then sought to lease the land with a view to setting up a commercial entity to remediate the site and turn it into a depository for the treatment of waste dumped illegally at various sites in Wicklow.

Read the Village article from August 2014 outlining the history of the Whitestown illegal dumping saga

Instead O’Reilly sold the Whitestown lands – which the company wanted to turn into a licensed waste facility after removing toxic and other dangerous, commercial and domestic from the site – to Brownfield in 2002 for €2m. It received a licence to do this from the Environmental Protection Agency but sued Wicklow County Council for failing to remove material including inert waste from road clearing work and dangerously toxic tarmac it had dumped.

O’Laoire and Sheehy have been giving evidence in a case for damages brought by Brownfield over the failure by the Council to remediate the site after the dramatic intervention by Phil Hogan during an earlier court hearing in 2011. Just weeks before a full hearing of the matter was due before the High Court in January 2012, representatives of the Council told a hearing before Mr Justice O’Keeffe that the department had confirmed that it intended to provide €50m to cover the costs of remediation.

As a result, the judge agreed to an indefinite adjournment of the case until the promised remediation had been carried out.

In evidence over the past two weeks, Sheehy has branded O’Laoire “a liar and a perjurer” and denied he had colluded with the authorised officer in plans to set up a private company to clean up the site he had been paid to inspect. O’Laoire had been the principal witness used by the Council to prosecute private waste firms that had illegally dumped vast quantities of commercial, domestic and medial, including hazardous waste on the site through the 1990s. He had failed to inform the authorities that Wicklow County Council had also dumped tens of thousands of tonnes of waste at Whitestown and had wrongly discussed issues with other witnesses, including Sheehy, during an earlier trial despite being forbidden by the presiding judge to do so.

The adjournment of the case in November 2011, following the promise by Hogan to provide the Council with €50m, came before Sheehy and other officials were called to give evidence about the private company set up by O’Laoire. It also meant they did not have to deal with the role of the Council itself in illegal dumping or the involvement of the EPA and Department of the Environment officials in the handling of the illegal dumping controversy. It has now emerged that Hogan did not have €50m to provide to the Council. RTÉ News carried the story of the planned intervention by the Department and the minister following a briefing the night before the court case in November 2011 in the Custom House provided by Hogan and senior department officials.

Sheehy has insisted in his recent evidence that he had known that O’Laoire had been engaged in corrupt activities since 2002 and that he had asked him to desist. However, counsel for Brownfield, Peter Bland SC, has challenged this and has claimed that Sheehy knew for many years about O’Laoire’s role and had failed to disclose it to the department or in previous court evidence.

In evidence on, 31 March, Bland showed Sheehy an email sent by the Department to him about an article published in Village magazine, and about questions posed by this writer following the adjourned court case in November 2011.

Questioning Mr Sheehy, Bland asked: “….we have a journalist, Frank Connolly… writing to the department, saying that the lead lawyer for Wicklow County Council attended the High Court on the 24th November, 2011, and told the Court that the Department agreed with the Council to underwrite the cost of the remediation of Whitestown illegal dump up to a cost of €50 million”.

Quoting the Village email query to the department, Bland continued: “Two officials of the Department were present (at the court case). Can you confirm whether or not the Department subsequently paid towards remediation and to what amount?”.

In response, the press officer of the Department asks the relevant Department official in an internal email: “Can we get a line on this? I presume we didn’t cough up any shillings since we probably didn’t have a pot to piss in”

The relevant, finance department, official replies in an internal communication to the press officer: “The attached sets out the full position. The €50 million is well wide of the mark….total remediation cost is approximately €5 million. The case falls within the deliverables of the ECJ (European Court of Justice) case so the State has been required to take these remediation costs on. However, it should be noted that Wicklow Co. Co. is seeking to recover costs through the courts”.

In subsequent questions, Peter Bland asked Sheehy about a request from the department for his response to a Village article outlining the history of the Whitestown illegal dumping saga and allegations made concerning him as County Manager and other senior officials. Sheehy replied by letter on 23 February, 2015.

The exchange continued.
Peter Bland: “Yes, so it is 23rd February 2015, six years after you (claimed to have) discovered that Mr O’Laoire is corrupt and incompetent. Here you are in the second last paragraph:

(Quoting from the Sheehy letter to the department, obtained by Brownfield under FOI, Bland continues)
Mr O’Laoire’s work contributed to the success of the Council’s effort to have a number of sites, including the Fenton site, where hospital waste was found, and a large Roadstone site near Blessington remediated, at no cost to the Council, by landowners and those who have dumped on the site. His work also contributed to the success of the NBCI (National Bureau of Criminal Investigation) in securing criminal convictions for illegal dumping in County Wicklow……A report prepared by Mr O’Laoire included technical details of how the Whitestown site could be remediated and an offer by him to carry out the work on behalf of the Council. He was told by the County Manager the Council’s policy was that those responsible should be costed for the remediation.

The letter went on to say that two years later ‘there were subsequent allegations by Brownfield which resulted in a finding by the Gardai of no credible evidence to show that Donal O’Laoire had committed any criminal offence’.

Then, the letter continued, ‘Mr O’Laoire made a number of admissions (in the High Court in July 2009) which were at variance with the statements (both to the NBCI and WCC). As a result of those admissions the proceedings became more complex and more protracted and were adjourned on several occasions in the intervening years. As a result of those delays the site is being remediated by the Council at the request of the Department, they are under pressure from the EU’”.

Finally, Bland read the final line of the letter which stated that “the Brownfield allegations against the Council’s consultant, Donal O’Laoire, are likely to be traversed fully in two sets of High Court proceedings when they are heard after the remediation of the site is complete. There are millions of euros at issue in these proceedings…”.

Bland continued: “That is your statement to the Department. You don’t say in that statement that you have issued proceedings or counterclaim against your consultant, Mr O’ Laoire, for professional negligence in botching the investigation against Whitestown or for a conflict of interest leading to the necessity for the Council to pay the costs of these proceedings. You don’t say that to the Department”.

Sheehy replied: “I didn’t say that to the Department, no……What I was asked for was a note giving our response to the Village Magazine article, which had a load of allegations against the County Council. I prepared a note for the Department”.

In evidence, given earlier in court, Sheehy claimed that he had known about O’Laoire’s allegedly corrupt activities for many years before he wrote the letter responding to the Village article in February 2015.

The trial is continuing in the High Court.

By Frank Connolly