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Donations: now Ahern turns on his 'friends'

TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern yesterday turned on two of his "close personal friends" as he anxiously sought to create distance between himself and money raised on his behalf.

The Taoiseach said it was wrong for Fianna Fail fundraiser Des Richardson to prepare a dummy invoice after meeting former NCB stockbrokers managing director Padraic O'Connor to solicit money.

"It was done between the two of them," said Mr Ahern of the men he insisted on calling "friends". "I don't think that's the way I'd do business," he added.

His open criticism of the dig-out backers came as two Fianna Fail backbenchers expressed reservations about developments given in evidence at the Mahon tribunal.

Fianna Fail TD Noel O'Flynn said it would now be helpful if the Taoiseach made a statement about his conflicts with Mr O'Connor over the origin and intended destination of the £5,000 payment.

His Cork colleague, new TD Michael McGrath, said he would be monitoring evidence at the tribunal over the next few weeks.

"As of now, there is no backbench revolt," Mr McGrath said.

Meanwhile -- as the continuing controversies threaten to overshadow tomorrow's Budget -- Mr Ahern was dodging questions on the role of another friend in the attempt to get the National Lottery to "front" dollar-rich developers in a casino project on the old Phoenix Park racecourse site.

The Taoiseach's boyhood friend, developer Robert White, was one of the Manchester tycoons involved in the attempt to bring about the casino.

Former National Lottery chairman John Hynes has said Mr White was "keeping an eye on political aspects as they might impact on the minister's position as a Dublin TD".

Mr Ahern lashed out at Hynes, who last week linked the Taoiseach to apparent ministerial approval for the casino bid. But he did not deny specific aspects of Mr Hynes' story, except to say that he was "always opposed to gambling".

Mr Ahern briefly discussed his links with Norman Turner, the chief executive of the Sonas/Ogden consortium seeking to develop the casino.

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The Taoiseach has admitted going on "two or three" trips paid for by Mr Turner, involving Manchester United games.

Mr Richardson has admitted that he received $10,000 from Mr Turner as a political donation to Fianna Fail.

Asked if he should have accepted hospitality from Mr Turner when a State-owned company for which he was ministerially responsible was in secret discussions with Mr Turner's consortium, Mr Ahern said: "Thankfully, like everybody else I take hospitality from people." He insisted: "There was nothing wrong with that, no."

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