Thursday 25 December 2014

FF justice spokesman says he intervened on criminal's behalf because of tragic family circumstances

Taoiseach had demanded 'immediate explanation' from Niall Collins

Barry Duggan, Niall O’Connor and Lise Hand

Published 19/06/2014 | 10:48

Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins with Frank Ryan (left)

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny demanded an "immediate explanation" from Fianna Fail Justice spokesperson Niall Collins in relation to a letter he sent to a judge pleading for leniency for a criminal caught with €17k of drugs.

And Mr Collins has issued his first public statement on the issue this afternoon.

Mr Kenny heaped the pressure on the embattled Limerick TD, insisting that Mr Collins's actions constitute "direct intervention in the administration of justice".

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Mr Kenny had called on both Mr Collins and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin to make a public statement what he described as a "very serious matter".

"I think this constitutes direct intervention in the administration of justice. I think this is an issue where not just a public representative but a shadow minister for justice has written directly to a judge seeking to influence his decision in the administration of justice as the judge sees fit," Mr Kenny said.

Limerick Circuit Criminal Court this week heard that Hugo Porter - a widowed father of four children - and another man, Alan Lysaght (39) from Scanlon Park in Castleconnell, admitted having €17,500 worth of cannabis for sale or supply on June 24, 2011.

They were arrested after gardai swooped and found Porter emerging from a Co Limerick field with a quantity of pre-bagged cannabis ready for sale.

Lysaght was jailed for three years with the final year suspended but Porter's sentencing was adjourned after a letter from Niall Collins was produced to the court.

Porter's solicitor, Michael Collins, handed the letter to Judge Carroll Moran

The letter on the TD's headed-paper - and hand-written last month - urged a judge not to jail Porter.

Mr Collins issued a statement this afternoon.

“There has been considerable and understandable media comment about my decision to write a letter to the court considering the case of an individual convicted of an offence in Limerick.

"While I would have preferred to avoid comment until the conclusion of this case, the level of public interest prevents this.

“I fully understand and respect the absolute independence of any sentencing judge in making their decision based on the facts put before them during any trial. If my actions suggest anything other than total respect for judicial independence that is a source of genuine regret”.

“To be very clear I wrote the letter outlining the exceptional circumstances of this family as the four children lost their mother earlier this year and I truly believed that the Judge should be made aware of these tragic circumstances so that they could be taken into consideration when sentencing.

"My decision was based solely on compassion and concern for the four children. Sentencing in this case has been deferred until October and I do not intend to speak about it any further.”

Mr Kenny's extraordinary intervention had earlier heaped major pressure on Mr Collins.

"I think it requires an immediate explanation by the leader of his party deputy Micheal Martin and it calls for an immediate explanation from deputy Collins himself," he said.

"It is not good enough to say that the matter has to wait until sentence is finally passed in October. It's a matter for the judge to have done that and he should not have been contacted directly by the intervention of a public representative, particularly a public representative carrying the responsibility of the shadow ministry for justice." 

It was also revealed today that Frank Ryan, a peace commissioner, who also asked Judge Carroll Moran for leniency for Hugo Porter (40) of St Patrick's Villas, Castleconnell, Co Limerick at Limerick Circuit Criminal Court on Monday worked as a driver to former Fianna Fail minister, Peter Power.

In recent years, Mr Ryan has driven Mr Collins to events in his Limerick constituency

It's understood Mr Collins sent the letter to the Judge Carroll Moran on "humanitarian" grounds because Mr Porter was a widowed father-of-four.

Sources close to Mr Collins said the Limerick TD's assistance had been sought by other people who were before the courts in the past but he did not act on the requests.

However, because of the "tragic circumstances" involved in Mr Porter's case he decided to write a letter seeking leniency from the Judge before sentencing the criminal.

It's understood that Mr Collins is not considering resigning from his position and has so far not being reprimanded by Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin.

Mr Martin's spokesman said the party had no comment to make on the matter at present but may issue a statement later.

In the witness box on Monday, Frank Ryan told Judge Moran that he has known the Porters for a long time and said that "Hugo has been a terrific father to those four children since their mother died".

Mr Ryan said that he does not "condone drugs, but I am asking you for leniency because jailing Hugo would be an awful loss for those children.

He added "God only knows what would happen to them and it is the school holidays coming up and they need their father".

Today, Fianna Fail party colleagues of Niall Collins privately expressed their shock at the revelations.

A number of TDs, some of whom are close to Deputy Collins, said they believed the revelations regarding the letter would result in him being moved out of the justice portfolio.

And a government minister who was previously at the centre of similar controversy expressed surprise at Mr Collins's actions.

Junior Health Minister Kathleen Lynch faced calls to resign a number of years ago after she wrote a character reference on behalf of a family of a sex offender.

She told 'Newstalk Breakfast': "I would have thought after my experience that people would have learned not to do it."

The letter attracted a reaction in court on Monday from the prosecuting counsel, John O'Sullivan BL, who led the State's case against Porter.

Mr O'Sullivan urged the court not to attach any weight to a letter submitted to the court on behalf of a defendant from a public representative.

He remarked that such letters  were "once common practice before but thankfully it stopped".

"Independent of that letter, the court has enough other evidence to consider what is appropriate," Mr O'Sullivan said.

Porter previously had a two-year suspended prison sentence handed down to him in Ennis Circuit Criminal Court for assault where he produced a broken glass.

Judge Moran sentenced him for this matter in September 2009 when he was bound to the peace for two years and ordered to pay the victim €3,000 in compensation.

Unemployed for the last two years, Porter also has previous convictions for road traffic offences including dangerous driving and failure to stop when directed to do so by a garda in September, 2006. Porter's wife Fiona died earlier this year.

Judge Moran was told that the children had been in receipt of counselling from Console and that in particular, one of the children had taken the death of his mother "very badly".

Adjourning the sentencing of Porter, Judge Moran said that he had to consider the possible activation of the suspended sentence for the previous Ennis assault case and an appropriate sentence for this drugs issue. Judge Moran said Porter was "not out of the woods yet".

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