Monday 23 September 2019

Sex, collusion and coercion in a midlands town: How Disclosures Tribunal will probe garda's 'relationship with drug dealer'

The Disclosures Tribunal returns next week to hear claims a garda was harassed after blowing the whistle on a colleague's relationship with a suspected drug dealer

Garda whistleblower Nick Keogh. Picture by Barry Cronin
Garda whistleblower Nick Keogh. Picture by Barry Cronin
Keith Harrison with Marissa Simms. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

When the garda search team arrived at the house of a suspected drug dealer, they immediately knew something fishy had happened. They were investigating a serious public order incident and had compiled a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions, but the DPP wasn't satisfied and wanted more evidence.

Specifically, prosecutors asked gardaí to secure footage of the incident, believed to have been taken on the female drug suspect's phone.

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The front door was open when the gardaí arrived and the woman was sat inside with family members. They started sneering at the gardaí that they knew they were coming. Unsurprisingly, no phone was found.

The gardaí were perturbed. Few of their colleagues would have had knowledge of the planned search. It was obvious there had been a tip-off, but could it really be possible that one of their own was the mole.

Keith Harrison with Marissa Simms. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Keith Harrison with Marissa Simms. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Suspicion soon turned to a particular garda who had been seen socialising in a pub with the female drug suspect. A confidential source later revealed this garda requested a meeting with the woman in a car park.

It was claimed he told her: "Get rid of the phones. Fuck them in the river now."

The garda was later confronted by a colleague and is alleged to have admitted he was having a sexual relationship with the woman and that was why he tipped her off.

These incidents, as described by garda whistleblower Nicky Keogh in a statement given to a subsequent internal inquiry, could have been straight out of Line of Duty, the acclaimed BBC drama exploring the world of police corruption.

But this was not some television show. The foiled search took place in Athlone in 2009 at the home of a woman considered to be a key figure in the supply of heroin in the midlands.

The matter is expected to get a public airing soon at the Disclosures Tribunal.

Having dealt with the smear campaign waged by former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan against penalty points whistleblower Maurice McCabe, the tribunal is set to resume next Thursday at Dublin Castle.

It has a new chairman, former Court of Appeal President Sean Ryan, and is now turning its attention to allegations made by the other members of the force who feel they were targeted and discredited for making disclosures.

Much of the focus of the forthcoming module is expected to be on events in Athlone and allegations made by Garda Keogh, a 19-year veteran of the force who received an award in 2016 for helping to rescue a drowning woman.

According to a disclosure made by Keogh, street dealers were focused on for attention while "big fish", such as the female drug suspect, were left off a list of targets.

Stranger than fiction

In addition to allegations of garda collusion in the sale and supply of heroin, Keogh has also alleged people not previously involved in criminality were coerced into buying drugs in an attempt to boost detection rates.

One such alleged episode truly is stranger than fiction. According to a disclosure made by Keogh, a man was arrested in 2010 over the sale weeks earlier of cocaine to an undercover garda in a pub. But when he was brought into custody, it became clear he was the wrong man and the person who should have been arrested was someone with a similar name.

Keogh said this man subsequently initiated a civil action for wrongful arrest.

He said that when he went to retrieve the case file, it was missing from his desk and could not be found. He claims a colleague, the same garda involved with the suspected drug dealer, told him: "You won't find that anywhere."

According to his disclosure, Keogh said he later discovered the wrongly arrested man's name had been removed from the Pulse computer record associated with the undercover drugs purchase.

The correct man was eventually arrested and reluctantly pleaded guilty when the matter came to court. But there is more to the story. According to Keogh, this man was coerced into selling the drugs to the undercover garda. He said the man claimed he received a text from someone he did not know, saying they had met him in a local nightclub before and asking if he could get cocaine.

The man replied that he did not have drugs, but the texter persisted. So he gave a friend €100 to source some cocaine and met the undercover garda in a pub, where he sold the drugs without making a profit.

Keogh said he believed statements relating to the arrest of the wrong suspect were never disclosed to the correct man's solicitor.

He also claimed this man told him he was threatened by a garda that if he did not plead guilty, the garda would "bury him".

The garda alleged to have colluded with the female drug dealer has been suspended since 2015, but others are expected to face questions over their handling of the matter. An internal inquiry is known to have examined claims at least one officer was warned about what was happening, but did not take sufficient action.

Garda Keogh has been on sick leave for the past three years due to alleged bullying and harassment after he made his disclosures.

A number of his claims have been supported in a separate disclosure made by Garda Keith Harrison, a Scott Medal winner previously stationed in Athlone. Harrison featured in a previous tribunal module, where he and his partner Marisa Simms alleged gardaí coerced her to make a false complaint against him and directed child and family agency Tusla to visit their home. The claims were dismissed as being "entirely without any validity" by Mr Justice Peter Charleton in an interim report of the Disclosures Tribunal.

But Harrison has stuck to his guns and issued proceedings last November seeking to have the findings quashed.

The allegations both have made in relation to matters in Athlone are well known to senior politicians. During Dáil exchanges in 2016, then Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said she was "extremely concerned about matters which have been raised about policing" in the town.

In a letter to Keogh's solicitor in 2017, current Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan signalled he would consider launching an inquiry into the collusion claims should existing ongoing inquiries prove inconclusive.

An outline of the allegations was provided in the Dáil three years earlier by then Independent TD, now MEP, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, and Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty.

According to Flanagan, Keogh's concerns included "a systematic and orchestrated effort by high-ranking garda officers" to induce and coerce people with no previous criminal record to buy drugs and sell them to undercover gardaí. He said another concern Keogh had was that a "well-recognised drug dealer in the area", who has long been associated with a garda, was excluded from a list of individuals to be targeted for investigation.

Meanwhile, Pearse Doherty said Harrison claimed to have had suspicions about a colleague who knowingly allowed the sale and supply of drugs in the Athlone district and that when he raised this with management, it fell on deaf ears.

Doherty went on to say Harrison was alleging that after arresting a member of the local drugs unit for drunk driving, he was maliciously targeted by garda management, while the arrested garda was protected.

It was alleged a review of Harrison's work returns and practices was instigated and people he had past interactions with were invited to make complaints against him.

Both gardaí have provided statements to the tribunal and have been interviewed by its investigators in recent weeks.

A fuller outline of the matters Mr Justice Ryan intends to investigate is expected to be revealed when the tribunal sits next week.

What is already certain though is that the coming months will bring more uncomfortable allegations for a garda force battling to restore its reputation after a series of whistleblower scandals.

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