Friday 23 February 2018

Garda wiped fines of key witness in Sophie Toscan du Plantier case

State releases damning transcripts

Sophie Toscan Du Plantier, who was bludgeoned to death in Schull, Co Cork in 1996
Sophie Toscan Du Plantier, who was bludgeoned to death in Schull, Co Cork in 1996
Ian Bailey (centre) and his partner Jules Thomas and solicitor Frank Buttimer
Sophie Toscan du Plantier
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

A SENIOR garda instructed officers to wipe summonses and pay off fines issued against a key witness who implicated journalist Ian Bailey in the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, according to damning allegations contained in documents disclosed to his legal team.

The allegation was made by another officer in 2007 when the investigation into the French film producer's murder was under internal review.

It is understood that the officer's statement was released to Mr Bailey's legal team in the past fortnight.

In it, the officer outlines how a colleague sought to have warrants and summonses dealt with and the fines paid for the witness because of their importance to the case.

It's understood that the garda raised concerns about the practice but was ignored.

The document was amongst 12 boxes of material released to Mr Bailey's legal team in the past 10 days.

Taped recordings of conversations between gardai involved in the Toscan Du Plantier murder probe sparked the current crises engulfing the Government, An Garda Siochana and the entire administration of justice in this country.

In the latest development, it has emerged that the State has also released transcripts of taped conversations between a garda and another witness, who later claimed that he was offered cash and drugs to implicate Mr Bailey in the December 1996 murder.

The transcripts appear to be of conversations recorded internally on garda landlines.

Mr Bailey is suing the State for wrongful arrest and sought the tapes along with other documents as part of his legal action.

It is understood that the actual tapes have not yet been released to Mr Bailey's legal team, but transcripts of some recorded conversations have been disclosed.

Security sources said the tapes are believed to include internal conversations between senior gardai along with conversations between gardai and potential witnesses as they tried to build a case against Mr Bailey.

Detectives had identified him as their prime suspect. "I don't know what's on them but I'm told that it is not good," one senior source told the Sunday Independent.

The tapes relating to the investigation were first discovered in Bandon garda station last autumn during a trawl of documents to be released to Mr Bailey for his legal action.

Mr Bailey's legal team was unaware that any tapes existed until late October, when a letter from the Chief State Solicitor referred to "media" held in electronic format that had just come to light and asked for more time to review them as outside assistance might be required.

On November 7, the Chief Superintendent of Bandon garda station, Thomas Hayes, swore a High Court statement elaborating on the tapes. He said that "recently uncovered old electronic files" would take time to review. The technology was "obsolete, old and fragile", he said, and there were various technical problems in reviewing the material.

Four days later, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan briefed Attorney General Maire Whelan on the existence of the tapes and set up a working group to examine the scale of the recordings in garda stations across the country.

The Garda Commissioner reported back to the Department of Justice on the extent of recording at garda stations on March 10. But a deadline of March 25 had been set by the High Court for the release of internal garda documents to Mr Bailey's legal team.

According to several government ministers, the evidence to be disclosed in a legal action was the catalyst for the Taoiseach to be informed and the decision to set up a commission of inquiry established.

The ministers did not identify the legal action but privately security sources confirmed that Mr Bailey's case raised the red flag.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, without identifying the case, said last week that "the contents of the recordings linked to that case are very significant indeed". He suggested that the requirement to release the tapes to the other side as part of the discovery order was "what really brought this to a head".

Michael Noonan told Prime Time last Tuesday: "The issue rose to a very serious magnitude when one piece of (litigation) threw up a situation where the contents of one tape was enormously relevant..." He said the "piece of evidence of the tape, which in my view was very, very serious, would not have become public for another 10 days or two weeks".

The discovery of the tapes is the latest bombshell to emerge about the garda handling of its investigation into the murder of Ms Toscan du Plantier, which has come under scrutiny both internally and from the State authorities.

In 2001, a report by the DPP's office noted that there was no evidence to prosecute Mr Bailey and that some of his actions indicated that he was innocent. It also noted accusations that gardai had offered cash and clothes to a drug addict in return for incriminating information about Mr Bailey.

Internal garda reviews of the investigation found other potential suspects for the crime had been passed over as the investigators focused all their efforts on Mr Bailey.

In 2011, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Eamon Barnes, disclosed to the State authorities that investigating gardai tried to put pressure on him to prosecute Mr Bailey. He described the garda investigation into the French woman's death as "thoroughly flawed and prejudiced".

The Garda Ombudsman is also examining the garda investigation, following a complaint from Mr Bailey. The tapes promise to shed more light on the conduct of the garda investigation.

The force is now bracing itself for the fallout from a litany of scandals that has beset the Garda Siochana. The new acting commissioner, Noreen O'Sullivan, has summoned all superintendents, chief superintendents and assistant commissioners to a crisis meeting at Templemore on Tuesday morning at 11am.

She is expected to address the wave of controversies that culminated in the resignation of Mr Callinan as Garda Commissioner last week.

His disclosures – relayed to the Taoiseach on Sunday last – that calls in and out of 23 garda stations were recorded, added to government disquiet over the penalty points and whistleblower controversies.

While 2,500 tapes and digital recordings are now being reviewed at garda headquarters, the tapes relating to the Toscan Du Plantier probe have caused serious disquiet within the force.

Mr Bailey's action for discovery of documents is due back in the High Court on Friday. The murder of Ms Toscan du Plantier at her holiday home in Schull in 1996 is one of the State's most notorious unsolved crimes. Mr Bailey, a local journalist, was twice arrested and released, as was his partner, Jules Thomas.

The French authorities launched their own investigation into the murder and sought Mr Bailey's extradition from Ireland two years ago. The extradition request failed, but the French investigation continues.

Sunday Independent

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