Tuesday 28 March 2017

Councils pay €350k to spy on the public

Private eyes snoop on compensation cheats, dumpers and staff

Spying game: Detectives use a variety of methods to observe their targets Photo: Gerry Mooney
Spying game: Detectives use a variety of methods to observe their targets Photo: Gerry Mooney
Mark O'Regan

Mark O'Regan

Private detectives employed by local authorities are using night-vision glasses, 'spy bugs' and covert cameras to snoop on members of the public - and one council has used a private eye to track down a "missing" employee.

A trawl through the accounts of some of the country's largest councils, reveals private sleuths are being used to gather evidence in a variety of situations, including the investigation of bogus compensation claims and possible social welfare fraud.

Figures show 12 of the country's 31 local authorities spent over €350,000 on this kind of probe since 2009.

Investigators have also been used to secure information on serious cases of anti-social behaviour, nuisance neighbours, and large-scale illegal dumpers.

In 2011, Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council employed investigators after receiving a serious complaint from a business owner within their jurisdiction. It was decided to engage a detective agency to carry out "surveillance work", which cost €8,300.

Meanwhile, Dublin City Council, the country's largest local authority, spent €22,000 in the past five years employing the services of private eyes to carry out various evidence- gathering assignments.

Three investigators were engaged for the purpose of probing four personal injury cases involving legal proceedings being taken against the council.

Council chiefs also decided to use a private investigator to try to locate a member of staff who had mysteriously gone "missing."

In a statement, the council said the purpose of the investigation was to find the employee who was "absent from duty without explanation".

However, it refused to provide the specific details of the disappearance, and said it was "not in a position" to give the overall costs in this case.

The council also declined to divulge whether the staff member was ever found.

Meanwhile, Fingal County Council paid out over €32,600 in the past five years to investigators by way of gathering information on suspect compensation claims against the council.

Documents obtained by the Sunday Independent under a Freedom of Information request reveal that South Dublin County Council spent €8,185 over the same period on suspect claims.

Elsewhere, Cork County Council resorted to private surveillance techniques to carry out a background check on an alleged "large-scale polluter".

A tenant who "abandoned" their council house was also investigated. Nearly €900 was allocated to try to establish the financial means of a litigant who refused to pay costs to the council arising from a court case.

Cork City Council, meanwhile, allocated €27,000 to gather evidence of those who were engaged in serious anti-social behaviour and "drug dealing."

In a statement, it stressed the overall objective is to protect its finances, and to assist the council in the defence of "spurious, exaggerated, or fraudulent claims."

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Michael Foley from Foley Detective & Security Agency, based in Dublin, described each operation as "unique", requiring individual planning.

Night-vision glasses and specialised listening devices are used by some private investigators, he said, but the methods required are generally more straightforward than that.

"The technology in an iPhone is excellent, so we use that in the majority of circumstances, when it comes to recording data.

"We usually start the surveillance early because we need to get an idea of the individual's daily routine," he said.

"If it involves a nuisance neighbour, we usually try to get video evidence. For instance, during the summer, the individual causing trouble might be sitting outside in the sun, drinking alcohol.

"In a case like that we'd take video footage and still photographs using SLR cameras with optical and digital zoom."

A covert stakeout operation is usually carried out while sitting in a van across the street, he said.

"In cases involving members of the public making claims for an accident, such as a fall in a public place, we'd keep an eye on them over a few days, to see what they're up to and to ensure that the claim is genuine."

Sunday Independent

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