Former FF senator weeps as he is jailed over bid to extort €100,000 from official
AN ELDERLY Fianna Fail senator is beginning a two-year jail term for his role in an "abominable scheme" of attempting to extort €100,000 from a Department of Agriculture veterinary inspector.
Francis 'Francie' O'Brien (70) wept as he was led away at Carrick-on-Shannon Circuit Court to begin his sentence. A further year was suspended.
O'Brien, who was a senator from 1989 to 2011, had pleaded guilty to a charge of demanding €100,000 from Michael Heelan, with menaces, at Tullyvaragh Lower, Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, on April 13 last year.
The judge told him that as an elected representative to the Seanad for many years, he had breached the trust of his community when he actively participated with blackmailers against a department official.
O'Brien, whose family farm 300 acres, apologised to Mr Heelan and to his own family for the grief and trauma caused. "I am ashamed of myself," he said.
Judge John O'Hagan heard that Mr Heelan had gone to O'Brien, "a pillar of the community", looking for advice after being fined €300.
The vet had been prosecuted when waste material relating to his work was found incorrectly disposed of and he was worried about the implications for his job. The former senator later told Mr Heelan that more material had been found – but that the matter could be sorted out for €100,000.
O'Brien told the inspector that he was "only the messenger". The amount was gradually reduced, but Mr Heelan eventually went to the gardai.
The court heard that on April 13, 2012, O'Brien rang Mr Heelan saying material had been found which could be traced to the vet. He asked him to meet him to discuss these bags containing needles, blood bottles and other testing material.
A figure of €100,000 was mentioned and the former senator said photographs could be produced of the material.
Mr Heelan said he did not have that kind of money. The figure was later reduced to €70,000 and then to €50,000 or €60,000.
Mr Heelan said he had only €30,000. At one stage the court heard that O'Brien said: "Michael, we are all on your side."
O'Brien of Corwillan, Latton, Castleblayney, was apprehended by gardai after a sting operation.
Officers had followed him, when he drove Mr Heelan to a shed to hand over material relating to the official's work testing animals for TB and other diseases.
Detective Inspector Fergus Treanor said he had known O'Brien for 30 years and was "hugely surprised" by his involvement in this.
John Boylan, a former IFA vice-president, said he had known the defendant since the mid 1960s.
Mr Boylan said he was "shocked" to hear of O'Brien's involvement. "I thought his mind must have flipped."
The court was told that O'Brien had been treated for anxiety and depression in 2010 and his GP was so worried about him that she had referred him to a psychiatrist in 2011.
His counsel Jonathan Kilfeather said O'Brien had co-operated with gardai. Like many other people he had made "some disastrous financial decisions".
Judge O'Hagan said he was not imposing a custodial sentence with an easy heart and he was aware that prison would be "ruinous" for the accused and his family.