Saturday 24 March 2018

Gardai begin probe into RTE 'sting' councillors

Fraud squad progresses to 'next level'

PROBE: Fine Gael Councillor Hugh McElvaney
PROBE: Fine Gael Councillor Hugh McElvaney
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The Garda fraud squad has launched a full investigation into allegations made in an RTE undercover sting operation that showed two county councillors allegedly asking for money to help a wind farm operator.

The investigation has been under way for a number of months and is understood to be at an advanced stage.

The Garda fraud bureau decided to proceed with an investigation after assessing the RTE footage to see whether the allegations they contained merited a full-scale inquiry.

Sources confirmed that the case has now proceeded to the next level.

Detectives have been viewing footage of the programme and a number of people have been interviewed.

The programme by the RTE Investigates team, broadcast last year, generated huge public debate over standards in public office. The programme featured a journalist posing as a wind farm investor who spoke to three local councillors.

The three politicians appeared to offer to lobby on behalf of a wind farm company - two of them allegedly in exchange for money.

One councillor, John O'Donnell, was filmed requesting that the money be routed through a third party. "Politically there would be a backlash," he said on the programme.

Hugh McElvaney, from Monaghan, was famously filmed asking the undercover reporter "what's in it for me?"

He has since denied any wrongdoing and has claimed he knew he was being "set up" as part of the programme and also claimed he played along with it "for the craic".

In a statement at the time, Mr McElvaney claimed he knew from the outset that this was "a stitch-up and a wind-up" which he had played along with in order to expose "the dirty tricks of the national broadcaster". He said he never accepted bribes or corrupt payments.

Read more: Councillors seek full RTÉ footage

A third councillor, Joe Queenan, from Sligo, did not request money but appeared to suggest a possible loan or an investment in a private business.

In a statement, at the time, he said the "the edited footage does not give a fair and honest account" of his conversation with the undercover RTE reporter.

He denied he had sought investment in return for helping the fictitious company with the planning process, and said he repeatedly told her he did not want any money.

In the fall out from the programme, Hugh McElvaney and Joe Queenan resigned from the Local Authority Members Association. John O'Donnell's membership of the association was "terminated" with "immediate effect."

John O'Donnell has also denied any wrongdoing. In a statement after the broadcast, he accused RTE of "entrapping" him during the investigation and said he was seeking legal advice on what he called the "sting operation".

He threatened to sue the station but has not lodged any proceedings.

RTE is being taken to court by another councillor who was secretly interviewed by the undercover reporter, alleging a breach of his privacy, but none of the footage featured in the programme.

At the time, RTE said it was very careful to act with integrity at all times during the filming.

Sunday Independent

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