Ahern rapped over blank cheques
JODY CORCORAN EXCLUSIVE TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern has been criticised by Mr Justice Moriarty, in an interim tribunal report, for his controversial practice of signing blank cheques, at least one of which ended up in an offshore bank account for the personal use of Charles Haughey.
Mr Ahern, who was dubbed 'Blank Cheque Bertie' after the revelation, is said by sources close to him to be "not unduly concerned" by the nature of the tribunal chairman's criticism, which he believes to be "minor enough".
The Opposition, however, is likely to seize on the rebuke when the report is published, probably next month, and will hope to inflict maximum political damage on Mr Ahern before the Dail resumes in October and in the run-up to a general election.
Extracts of potential findings being considered by tribunal chairman Mr Justice Moriarty were circulated to interested parties earlier this month, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
Those who received extracts were asked to make submissions to the tribunal by Wednesday next, August 23.
But as a "mark of respect" to the family of the late Mr Haughey, the tribunal deferred aspects of its work. The new deadline for submissions is now September 18.
Extracts were only sent to those whom the findings were likely to affect. The fact that Mr Ahern received an extract confirms that he comes in for a measure of criticism.
The family of the late Mr Haughey is understood to be taking issue with some of his potential findings, which may further delay publication.
However, it is understood Mr Ahern accepts the criticism of him contained in the report, although he is to ask Mr Justice Moriarty to state that the practice of signing blank cheques, drawn against the Party Leader's Account, no longer applies.
The Leader's Allowance is the expression used to describe payments made from central funds to the party leaders to assist them in financing the political activities of their parties.
The funds are controlled by the political parties to whose leaders the payments are made. Typically, the allowances are used to pay for salaries and other expenses of party officials employed to assist the parties or party leaders in their parliamentaryactivities.
The tribunal's attention was drawn to the Party Leader's Allowance in the context of the Amiens accounts.
These were accounts in Guinness & Mahon bank controlled by the late Des Traynor, through which large sums of money were channelled to Mr Haughey and from which payments were made to or for the benefit of Mr Haughey.
One such lodgement of £25,000 occurred on June 20, 1989. This cheque for £25,000 was drawn on Allied Irish Banks, 1 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2, the Fianna Fail Party Leader's Account, in the name of Haughey, Ahern and (Ray) MacSharry. The cheque, which was dated June 16, 1989, was signed by Mr Ahern and Mr Haughey.
Meanwhile, it had been expected that Mr Justice Moriarty would also arbitrate on a clash between Mr Ahern, Fianna Fail and tribunal lawyers on whether information was withheld from the tribunal. However, it is believed the chairman did not make any adverse finding against Mr hern in this regard.
In August 1999, when the tribunal examined Fianna Fail's cash receipts books, the tribunal lawyers were not provided with what was subsequently discovered to be a "second list", a key to unlocking anonymous money donors to the party.
Under examination before the tribunal in June 2000, Mr Ahern acknowledged that the tribunal was not told, until after reports in the media, that an internal Fianna Fail inquiry had taken place in 1996 into why property developer Mark Kavanagh did not get a receipt for a £100,000 donation in 1989.
Asked why he did not volunteer information to the tribunal about the 1996 inquiry, Mr Ahern said it did not occur to him.
The tribunal examined the administration of the Party Leader's Allowance by Fianna Fail during the period of Mr Haughey's leadership and also in the period since he ceased to be leader.
On April 4, 1991, a cheque was drawn on the account in the sum of £5,000 payable to cash. This cheque was also signed by Mr Ahern, then the Chief Whip and by Mr Haughey, then the Taoiseach.
On September 11, 1991, another cheque was drawn on the account in the sum of £10,000, again payable to cash and signed once again by Mr Ahern and also by Mr Haughey.
On September 18, 1991, a further cheque in the sum of £7,500 was again payable to cash. The signatories on the account were Mr Ahern and Mr Haughey.
On June 16, 1989, a cheque payable to cash was drawn on the account, this time in the sum of £25,000. This was also signed by Mr Ahern and Mr Haughey.
There were very substantial round sums also drawn down in years other than those years. For instance, in 1984, £50,400 in round sums was withdrawn. In 1985, the sum of £10,000 in round sums was withdrawn. In 1986, the sum of £50,000 was withdrawn and in 1989, the sum of £75,000 in round sums was withdrawn.
During most of this time, the account was administered either in part or in whole by Ms Eileen Foy, an employee of Fianna Fail from 1977.
Generally she would ask Mr Ahern to sign a number of blank cheques.
Mr Ahern told the tribunal that he had no recollection of ever having signed a cheque made out to "cash" in any significant amount.
He said that because of the volume of transactions through the account, combined with the necessity for the regular writing of cheques, a practice of pre-signing blank cheques was put in place for "administrative convenience".
A series of cheques would be pre-signed by a signatory on the account and, thereafter, the appropriate co-signatory would sign the cheque with the details of the payee and the amount of the cheque duly inserted.
Mr Ahern believed that as the account was being administered by a highly competent and efficient administrator and book keeper, the conduct of the account was believed to be proper and that, in addition, there was no evidence of any irregularity applying to the use made of the cheques which were drawn on the account in this way.
With respect to the cheque of June 16, for £25,000 and made payable to cash, Mr Ahern stated that this cheque was drawn at or about the time of the 1989 General Election, which was held on June 15, and he said he believed that the likelihood was that he pre-signed a series of cheques in advance of the election to allow the account to be operated so that normal business and trading debts could be discharged promptly.
Mr Ahern informed the tribunal that the cheque did bear his signature, but that the writing of the word "Cash" and the amount "£25,000.00" both in numbers and in manuscript, was not in his writing and he believed that the cheque was one of the category of pre-signed cheques signed by him.
So far as the other cash cheques were concerned, Mr Ahern's position was the same - he would not have signed them with any words or figures on them and that they must therefore have been pre-signed by him.