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Tuesday 16 January 2018

Civil servant didn't tell bank of €35k rent arrears

Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

A CIVIL servant wrote a letter on behalf of tenants of a government property, claiming the leaseholders were up to date with rent when in fact they were €35,000 in arrears.

The civil servant was a senior official in the Department of the Marine when he wrote the letter on behalf of BMS Trading (Island Seafoods) in 2006.

He also said in his letter there were no breaches of the lease. It was sent on foot of a request for a letter to support a loan application. But the leaseholders were more than €35,000 in arrears and had paid no rent for at least the previous two years.

The letter came to the attention of the office of Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, who contacted the department in 2011 to raise concerns. "It's clear the letter in question had at least the potential to mislead," the office told the department.

Killybegs-based chip shop owner John Shine, who bought the lease from BMS Trading on the basis of the letter, said: "We hear a lot about the banks giving false information.

"But what about false information being given to a bank by a high-ranking government official? That undermines the financial system too."

Mr Shine later paid more than €300,000 for the lease on the harbour-front building in Killybegs, intending to open a fish restaurant. However, he did not proceed with the plan.

He took his case to the Ombudsman, which found no intention in the letter to mislead a purchaser of the lease because the department was unaware of plans to transfer it.

An Ombudsman spokesman added the department "accepted there was a shortfall" and had advised staff that all correspondence with customers should have "no potential for any ambiguity".

"Our understanding was that the letter was for bank refinancing," the spokesman said. He said the Ombudsman had asked for assurances that controls were in place to avoid a recurrence of such letters being issued in future.

The Department of Agriculture refused to answer questions from the Irish Independent about whether an internal inquiry was held, or if the civil servant was disciplined. It is understood the man is working at the same grade in another department.

The department said: "The Office of the Ombudsman carried out a full examination on foot of the complaint made, and on completion of its examination notified this department that it had advised the complainant that his complaint against this department could not be upheld."

But the statement omitted that the Ombudsman had issues with the letter which it described as "problematic" with the "potential to mislead persons in receipt of it".

Irish Independent

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