EMBATTLED senator Ivor Callely yesterday began an unprecedented legal battle to overturn an Oireachtas investigation into his expenses and to win damages.
Instead of accepting a 20-day ban over his travel claims, Mr Callely took the increasingly bitter fight to the High Court, which will decide in early October whether it can adjudicate on his challenge.
But the senator's actions triggered a legal quagmire, with lawyers on both sides squaring up for a battle that could have profound implications for Oireachtas rules.
In a dramatic High Court hearing, Mr Callely, through his lawyers, insisted he was entitled to €81,000 in disputed travel expense claims and he also revealed he was seeking financial damages.
Mr Callely, who was banned from the Seanad for 20 days without pay for deliberately misrepresenting his normal place of residence to claim travel expenses, claimed he had been painted as a "chancer" and "a rogue" and "thoroughly despicable".
But his lawyers said Mr Callely still believed he was entitled to make the €81,000 claim.
His legal fight drew fierce criticism from former Fianna Fail colleagues, including Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin, who accused Mr Callely of crossing a line by dragging Oireachtas business through the courts.
More damningly, Mr Callely, who resigned from the party last month, was also criticised by Bertie Ahern, the man who appointed him to the Seanad.
"I don't believe in bringing these things to the law," Mr Ahern said.
In the High Court, Mr Callely's lawyers said he was seeking damages as well as:
- Orders quashing the recommendation of the Seanad Members' Interest Committee to suspend him for 20 days.
- A declaration that the Seanad Members' Interest Committee erred in law and acted outside its powers.
- A halt to the Seanad taking further action against him until the legal action has ended.
Legal sources last night said Mr Callely could have pursued a deal which may have seen him take his Seanad seat pending the outcome of the action.
But it is seen as unlikely he would do so, since the Seanad returns only a week before the next court date.
The action, in which the court's jurisdiction to interfere in the affairs of the Oireachtas as well as Mr Callely's leave application will be heard, could take place as early as October 4.
A victory for Mr Callely would be a nightmare scenario for the senators on the Members' Interest Committee that suspended him, and would make a mockery of their rules.
Mr Callely's legal team told the court that as a result of the findings he had been portrayed as a "pariah".
But the Seanad asked High Court Judge Sean Ryan to adjourn Mr Callely's application and claimed the Houses of the Oireachtas have a constitutional right to police their own internal affairs.
Gerard Hogan, senior counsel for the committee, said he was opposed to leave being granted for Mr Callely to sue it as it would affect the committee from continuing its investigations into him.
It is also due to look at complaints about Mr Callely's mobile phone expenses and his declaration of property assets.
Mr Callely has a deadline of today to respond to the committee's queries into the mobile phone claims and information on his property declarations is due on September 21.
But a source close to the committee said the other inquiries, including interviewing Mr Callely, may not be affected in the run-up to the court date.
"But it may be delayed out of respect for the court," the source said.
A report from the committee said Mr Callely should be suspended from the Seanad for 20 days because the misrepresentation of his normal place of residence as his holiday home in Cork rather than his home in Dublin was done "intentionally and was of a grave nature".
Mr Callely has "strenuously" rejected the report's findings.
But he came under strong criticism from senior ministers for opting to challenge his suspension in court.
Ms Hanafin said there was a "very definitive separation of powers" set out in the Constitution, distinguishing the courts, the office of the President and the Oireachtas.
"We are advised never to cross those lines and I think that's an issue that has to be considered.
"I would have thought the Oireachtas is the place to deal with it," she said.
Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe said he was disappointed by Mr Callely's move.