News Courts

Thursday 2 October 2014

Mixed emotions as bank's fall guys escape jail terms

Published 30/04/2014 | 02:30

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Willie McAteer leaving Dublin Circuit Criminal Court
Willie McAteer leaving Dublin Circuit Criminal Court
Pat Whelan arriving at the Courts of Criminal Justice
Pat Whelan arriving at the Courts of Criminal Justice
Judge Martin Nolan

THE two Anglo men stood quietly, both with their hands clasped together in front of them, their gazes focused intently on the judge. For 48 days, Willie McAteer and Pat Whelan had sat and listened as the legal teams picked over the decayed bones of that rotten entity, Anglo Irish Bank – the once-swaggering institution that they had laboured to save even as it slid inevitably towards the abyss.

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They had heard 50 witnesses give evidence – former colleagues at Anglo, executives from Morgan Stanley, the former head of the Financial Regulator, the former secretary general of the Department of Finance, members of the Maple 10, most left high and dry by Anglo's doomed rescue plan.

And, of course, Sean Quinn, the bankrupt billionaire whose fate – and final fall – was inextricably liked to the broken bank.

Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer had sat quietly through it all, alongside Sean FitzPatrick as February passed into March, which rolled into April. But Seanie walked, and then there were two, found guilty on 10 charges of illegal loans.

All the pair could do was bide their time in the dock as the wheels of justice ground slowly towards their sentencing. There was an afternoon of evidence from the solicitor Robert Heron on Monday. And then yesterday, the court heard from Superintendent Eamonn Keogh who had headed up the garda team that had put in over five years' hard slog at the investigative coalface.

Brendan Grehan rose to speak eloquently on behalf of his client, Mr Whelan. He spoke of how 52-year-old Pat had picked his way along a hard path, a child of the inner city, whose dad had died when he was 13. And since the trial began, Pat had been the subject of "fairly massive, continued and sustained publicity". His image, said Mr Grehan, was "burnished into public culture".

The senior counsel told the court that Pat "didn't for one moment think he was involving himself in something unlawful". The former executive had acted in response to directions from above, he argued. And there was no personal gain involved.

Mr Grehan spoke with fluent certainty, but still uncertainty hung in the air. There was no road map for this case. This country has no history of putting bankers in the dock.

Judge Martin Nolan announced that he would pass sentence later in the day, at 3.45pm. In the meantime, the sun shone beautifully outside. Cheered by the sight of it, spectators and media and curious lawyers inside Court 19 chatted during the breaks. Plans for the long weekend were happily aired in between speculation about the sentence – would they get a custodial sentence, or a suspended one?

There was no chat between a tense-looking Pat and Willie. Their plans for the weekend lay in the hands of one man now. Then it was 3.45pm, and the Anglo Two were on their feet. The courtroom was packed to the doors with members of the public, gardai, and denizens of the Law Library situated two floors down.

Martin Nolan began to speak. It seemed ominous at first as he talked of how the transaction had been "a blatant affront" of the relevant part (Section 60) of the Companies Act. But then he invoked the name of former Anglo boss David Drumm whose pinstriped shade had drifted through this trial like a spectre at the legal feast. Drumm, declared the judge, was "the instigator and author of the scheme in question".

The judge never raised his voice, but he mercilessly lashed the role and actions of the Financial Regulator.

"I find it incredible that red lights didn't go on in the Regulator's office," he stated. "The Regulator didn't realise it was a breach of Section 60, or chose to disregard it."

The two men still stood, awaiting their fate. Then the judge said he didn't believe their motivation was "avarice, greed or pursuit of profit". And amid total silence came the pronouncement: "It would be incredibly unjust of this court to impose custodial sentences," said Judge Nolan.

The faces of the men in the dock never changed, but their eyes betrayed them, welling up with tears which never fell, but which hinted at emotions held tightly in check.

Nor did he fine them, but would hand out community service. Right until the end of his speech, the judge damned the Regulator over and over.

Even after he had finished, Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer stood stock-still, as if unsure what had just transpired.

"You can sit down," Martin Nolan told them.

Then they departed amid some quiet handshakes with their legal team. They left behind a welter of mixed emotions from those who had watched the drama unfold as spring moved towards summer.

For as the judge's sentence had made abundantly clear, these two had been the fall guys, the loyal staff who trusted that those above them knew what was what. On the shoulders of Pat and Willie had been laid the moral if not actual crimes of negligence, fecklessness, greed, hubris and incompetence perpetrated by governments, state agencies and the top brass of Ireland's banking sector.

But still. The sunny day was darkened by the knowledge that even though justice may have been served in the case of Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer on the basis of the story which unfolded in Court 19, not one banker that sowed the wind with Ireland's cache of doubloons has reaped the whirlwind.

Outside the court building, Willie McAteer's daughter was on her mobile phone.

"We're all coming home tonight," she said, as the scrum of cameras pursued the two men for one last burnish for the road.

Irish Independent

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