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Thursday 18 September 2014

US politician visited Mayo a month before car park controversy

Former FBI agent's meeting with Mayo businesswoman supports his claim they knew each other before early morning incident now being used as "political smear"

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

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Joanna Grehan

The US politician at the centre of an alleged political smear campaign involving a Mayo businesswoman visited Ireland a month before the early morning incident which made headline news on both sides of the Atlantic last week, the Sunday Independent has learned.

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Former FBI agent Ed Fitzgerald and Mayo Enterprise Board chief executive Joanne Grehan attended a function with Taoiseach Enda Kenny on September 12, 2012.

The following month, on October 13, Ms Grehan and Mr Fitzgerald were questioned by US police at 4.30am in a car park after the car they were in was reported by a member of the public.

The meeting in Mayo seems to support Mr Fitzgerald's claim it was not the first time he met Ms Grehan and she was in fact "a friend of the family". "They were at my house before this and after," he said. "There's nothing salacious going on about this at all," he added. And a spokesperson for Mr Fitzgerald last night told US newspaper The Columbus Dispatch the politician also remembers meeting Ms Grehan in the summer of 2012 on another official trip to Mayo.

The car park incident emerged in US media last week and Ms Grehan (36) found herself playing a leading role in a political scandal worthy of hit US drama House of Cards. Both Ms Grehan and Mr Fitzgerald deny anything inappropriate happened on the night when they attended a Cleveland Mayo Society function.

Mr Fitzgerald, who is married with four children, insists he pulled over to find directions to Ms Grehan's hotel after losing the rest of the party who were travelling in another car.

The Democrat politician claims the story was leaked by his opponent in the Republican Party in an attempt to derail his campaign to become governor of Ohio. In response to the controversy, Mr Fitzgerald (46) released an emotional statement on his son's battle with cancer, accompanied with a family photograph.

But he insisted: "We're not looking for sympathy - lots of families have gone through the same or worse. But it's helped us learn a lesson that whatever is thrown at the Fitzgerald family - personal, political, medical, whatever -we're going to survive and just get stronger as a family unit."

Ms Grehan, who is a married mother of one, was part of a Mayo delegation led by the Taoiseach which was visiting Cleveland, Ohio.

She released a joint statement with Mayo County Manager Peter Hynes, who was also on the trip, saying said they were "outraged and disgusted" by a controversy "fabricated with political motivation".

Ms Grehan is a respected business leader in her native county and is known for her networking skills. She has been instrumental in promoting Mayo as a tourist destination and has worked side-by-side with Mr Hynes to generate investment in the county. She regularly travels with Mr Hynes and other local authority representatives on international trade missions.

Those who travelled with her on foreign trips said she is a very hard working and committed to bringing jobs to Mayo. Ms Grehan is due to speak at an event in Cleveland next month and Mr Fitzgerald is scheduled to give an address at the same function.

Mr Fitzgerald travelled to Ireland September 2012 and was photographed with Ms Grehan and Mr Kenny at a business conference in the Mount Falcon Hotel in Ballina, Mayo. The function was organised by Ms Grehan, who was an executive in the Western Development Commission at the time, and Mayo County Council. Speaking at the event Mr Fitzgerald, who has family roots in Westport, said his delegation felt "really at home" during their visit.

Mayo County Manager Mr Hynes gave special thanks to Ms Grehan for organising the event. Four weeks later, Ms Grehan and Mr Hynes, along with Mayo County Councillors Cyril Burke, Austin O'Malley and Blackie Gavin, jetted off to the US with the Taoiseach on a trade mission.

During the trip, Ms Grehan attended a ball on October 12 hosted by the Cleveland Mayo Society where Mr Kenny spoke to the hundreds of guests in attendance. Guests who attended the black tie dinner said the event was still in "full swing" at around 2.30am the following morning.

At 4.30am, electrician Kasey Hager, who was working in the area, rang the West Lake Police Department to report suspicious activity in a car. In a recording of the call, Mr Casey is heard saying: "I don't know if they notice all my lights….but all I keep seeing is like something going back and forth, and I'm like, eh, you know what this is a little fishy."

In another recording, a police officer, who was reporting the incident back to the control centre, said: "This is a county guy (referring to the fact that Mr Fitzgerald was a politician)… he had part of a delegation from Ireland with him." The police report of the incident states Mr Fitzgerald and a friend were "just talking" in the car park.

Once the police recordings emerged last week, Mr Fitzgerald cancelled his campaign schedule and held a press conference. He said he was one of two drivers designated to drive the travelling party from Ireland back to their hotels. He said there were "about another half-dozen" passengers in the other car while he and Ms Grehan travelled alone. He said they lost the other group on the way to the hotel and stopped to get directions.

"There was absolutely nothing - nothing - inappropriate going on," Fitzgerald said. However, he admitted he did not have a full driver's license at the time and should have been accompanied by a fully licensed driver. In her statement, Ms Grehan said she was "deeply shocked and extremely saddened" by the attempts to "construe an innocuous incident" into something completely different. "After being separated from their party, Joanne and Ed stopped the car to map the actual route to the hotel," the statement added.

"The vehicle was approached by a police patrol car which stopped, checked that all was in order and then left. Ed and Joanne then continued on to the hotel where Ed dropped her off."

As the controversy overtook Mr Fitzgerald's election campaign last week, he published a letter to his followers detailing his 20-year-old son Jack's battle with cancer. The statement signed by Mr Fitzgerald and his wife Shannon said Jack was given the all clear after symptoms reoccurred. "While the rest of the political establishment was talking about driver's licenses, our focus was right where it belonged - on our family," it stated.

Ms Grehan did not respond to a request for comment.

Sunday Independent

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