Saturday 20 December 2014

Shane Ross: Judge Cooke lands in the soup

Shane Ross

Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00

JUSTICE John Cooke is an unlikely candidate for a controversy. But the High Court judge put the cat among the pigeons last week when he had to withdraw from a case involving CRH.

In the process he attracted an unwelcome spotlight on himself and his fellow judges.

His lordship is not a saint. He makes mistakes like the rest of us. His mistake, revealed last week, was that he had bought shares in CRH after he had begun sitting on a case that affected the company's fortunes.

Cooke had declared that he had a CRH holding when the case begun in 2010. Counsel for neither side had objected.

Unhappily for all the parties, particularly himself, he bought another holding in CRH soon after the case began. He has been sitting on both holdings since 2010.

Seamus Maye, an interested party in another case involving Cooke and CRH, discovered that Cooke had purchased the second holding. The response from Justice Cooke was that the shares had been bought, unknown to him, by his financial advisers.

'The response was that the shares were bought, unknown to him, by his financial advisers...'

He even protested that if anyone had shown him "the courtesy" to point this out to him he would have been saved the bother of writing three written judgements. He insisted that the counsel moving the motion for him to withdraw from the case would have to "take my word" for it that he was unaware of the second purchase.

Just like that.

A little more humility from his lordship might have been more appropriate.

The size of Cooke's holding is unknown. Nor is it particularly relevant, but the opaque incident begs serious questions about the suitability of certain judges for sensitive commercial cases.

CRH is a company with a highly accident-prone record. Nearly half its board held illegal Ansbacher accounts at one stage. This is not the first time it has featured in potential judicial conflicts of interest. CRH has powerful, not always savoury, tentacles.

No opprobrium should be attached to Justice Cooke for his failure to remove himself from this case earlier, but in future he would be better advised to find out where his advisers are sinking his savings.

It takes a commendable level of discipline for a human to show such a lack of interest in his personal investments. Cooke is reputed to be a man who might well possess such austerity.

But there are wider questions. How did a judge of the High Court land in charge of a case that could affect his investments? Who gave him the case? Are cases allotted by lottery, or by careful selection by the President of the High Court?

Presumably Cooke will now be asking his advisers about all his other investments. Let us hope that he does not discover that he has holdings in other companies over which he has already sat in judgement. If he has, where will that leave his verdicts?

Other judges are over-exposed to property. Should they be sitting in judgements over developers?

Worse still, what about the unknown judges who have lost fortunes in such financial disasters as investment firm Custom House Capital?

A recent article in the Irish Independent by Dearbhail McDonald revealed that some senior judges had lost €250,000 in the €90m Ponzi scheme. What happens if any consequent court cases tumble into their lap?

It would be surprising if other judges had not lost their shirts in worthless shares in Anglo Irish Bank. It would be crazy if verdicts in forthcoming cases over Anglo had to be set aside after it emerged that the judge had been burned by the rogue company.

The failure of judges to declare their commercial interests is indefensible. The Four Courts should not wait for reluctant politicians to force a compulsory declaration of interests, assets and loans upon the judiciary.

The judges themselves should jump out of their ivory towers and insist that every last one of them reveals their commercial interests.

Noonan happy to let sleeping watchdogs lie

SO Michael Noonan doesn't meet the "public interest" directors of the banks?

The Minister for Finance replied to my parliamentary question last week with the news that he has not met any of the "public interest" directors of any of the banks for 18 months. He has NEVER met the "public interest" directors of the Bank of Ireland!

Life must be easy for BoI public interest directors Joe Walsh and Tom Considine, AIB's Dick Spring and Michael Somers (technically a government appointee) and Irish Life & Permanent's Ray MacSharry and Margaret Hayes. They must not be able to believe their luck.

All six already enjoy generous state pensions topped up by their juicy fees as public interest directors. Their pay as bank directors is a second pension for the happy sextet.

The three ex-ministers and trio of retired public servants do not have to report to Minister Noonan – because he does not want to meet them. They do not even have to stand for re-election, like the other directors.

What do they have to do? What is their job spec?

They have been on the boards during a period of deep distress for the Irish people, if not for themselves. During their terms what have these watchdogs done about rocketing mortgages that have impoverished borrowers? Have they approved the suffering caused by the massive recapitalisation of the banks?

None has resigned over any issue, certainly not the bankers' pay balloon. They have sat publicly silent as the revelations have come dripping out, week after week, about the sensational payments and pensions being made to bank executives.

The news last week that the exhorbitant level of bank pay was not confined to chief executives, but travelled down through the ranks of bankers, has left public interest directors further wrong-footed. They are now seen as acquiescent in the payment of €400,000 salaries to 28 executives at the pillar banks.

The Celtic fatcats have spawned two dozen hidden kittens. All under the noses of the surviving six.

This perception is not exactly diluted by the presence of none other than ex-FF cabinet minister and public interest director Joe Walsh as chairman of the Bank of Ireland's remuneration committee! Noonan insists that he contacts chairmen and chief executives when he wants to deliver a message. So he meets all the insiders and swallows their line. Top of Noonan's list must be Richie Boucher, the €12,000-a-week CEO of Bank of Ireland, along with part-time governor Archie Kane, who has to settle for €8,000 a week. Noonan had no input into Kane's recent extraordinary appointment as governor, but perhaps he might ask Kane why he lost part of his bonus in his last job?

Public interest directors should be outsiders, banging the table demanding a change in banking culture. They have done the State no service.

'The Untouchables' by Shane Ross and Nick Webb is available from all good bookshops

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