independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Good, bad and ugly side of being the city's sheriff

John Fitzpatrick leaves his post after 30 years, dismayed by the fact that 'rich guys win in end'

Dublin County Sheriff, John Fitzpatrick who retired last week. Photo: David Conachy

AFTER three decades, two busts and a boom, the Dublin County Sheriff handed in his badge last week and confirmed the old adage that the rich guys win out in the end.

John Fitzpatrick, who retired last Tuesday, said that some developers who went bust after the property crash managed to stay one step ahead of the bailiffs while the "ordinary Joes" were still repaying their debts.

Mr Fitzpatrick claimed that "rich guys" were now "back in business" after going bankrupt abroad but most of the small business owners had done deals with the sheriff to pay back their creditors in instalments.

"The developers seem to have been set up to deal with it, most of them anyway. But the ordinary Joe, the small company, the person running a business, they didn't run away nor were they geared up to put everything offside.

"So they took the hit. And in fairness to them, we did deals with them and most of them kept to those deals," he told the Sunday Independent.

Until last week, Mr Fitzpatrick was one of 16 government-appointed bailiffs empowered to seize goods or enforce eviction orders on behalf of Revenue Commissioners, banks and creditors who secure court orders. They operate as sole traders, taking a cut of whatever assets they seize as payment.

Far-reaching powers allow them to break into private homes without a search warrant and seize paintings, furniture or anything else of worth that can be off-set against the debt.

But Mr Fitzpatrick said he frequently walked away empty handed from the often salubrious homes of debt-stricken developers.

In one case, he said, a truck left Dublin with a load of paintings and valuables bound for Monaco.

"I don't want to quote any names. We had been to the house but there was nothing there," he said.

Another developer -- whom he also declined to name -- had a €20m-plus judgement against him but lived in a "massive house in the middle of nowhere, with stables and the like.

"When we saw the house we thought there'll be antiques and that . . . he obviously saw what was coming," said Mr Fitzpatrick.

"There were no pictures on the walls. All the interior furniture seemed to have gone," he said. "So we just took the Jag and the Range Rover . . ."

When they showed the developer the judgement, he didn't seem the least perturbed. He said "that's nothing. I owe €150m to the bank."

"That was a pattern. There were others as well, where we had known there would be stuff there [to seize] but by the time we got the documentation and went, either it had shifted to the wives or it wasn't there."

As sheriff, he has been an unwelcome visitor to the homes of a string of high-profile developers. He evicted Tom McFeely, who built the fire-trap Priory Hall, from his family home on Ailesbury Road last year.

He also called on two well known developers who live near each other in Foxrock, south county Dublin.

In both cases, the sheriff was told that the valuables were the property of their respective wives.

Another high roller to cross his radar was Michael Fingleton, the disgraced boss of Irish Nationwide Building Society, when Ulster Bank pursued him for a €13.5m loan.

The bank got a court order to have valuables seized from his home, but the bank withdrew the order before the sheriff moved in.

Mr Fitzpatrick was appointed in 1978 by the late Fianna Fail Minister for Justice Gerry Collins in what he freely admits was a case of "jobs for the boys".

He said that he knew Mr Collins personally, was a solicitor to the attorney general and was also a member of Fianna Fail.

"I got a phone call from the Minister for Justice to ask if I wanted the job of Dublin County Sheriff. He said there were a lot of other guys looking for it but if I wanted it, it was mine," he said. "It was a different system then . . . That's the way it was done."

In contrast, his replacement as Dublin County Sheriff, Fergus Gallagher, was appointed by the Cabinet after open competition organised by the Public Appointments Service.

Evictions are another indicator of how times have changed. When Mr Fitzpatrick started in the late Seventies, evictions from family homes were not uncommon. He received 360 eviction notices a year in his area alone, and most of them were enforced "mercilessly". It wasn't the nicest way to earn a living, "particularly from the evictions", he said.

Now, he says, evictions are rare. Also debtors get a reprieve at Christmas. According to Mr Fitzpatrick, there is a moratorium on evictions and asset seizing from December 13 until January 4.

Irish Independent

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