Tuesday 28 January 2020

Gardai lose vital crime resources to Sargent probe

Top officers hunt source of leaked letters


ONE of the country's top serious crime investigators has been switched to investigate the source of the leaked letters that led to Junior Minister Trevor Sargent's resignation last week.

With almost 50 unsolved gang-related murders since the start of 2008, the decision has been made to appoint Detective Superintendent John McMahon from the National Bureau of Crime Investigation (NBCI) to head up the leak inquiry ordered by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern.

The investigation will be headed by Chief Superintendent Michael Finn, who is currently the senior officer overseeing two garda divisions: Cork city, where the previous chief superintendent retired last year; and west Cork, where he is based.

He will travel up to Dublin each week to oversee the investigation.

As well as the two senior officers, there will also be a team of experienced criminal investigators, all of whom will be seconded from murder and other serious crime investigations. Sources told the Sunday Independent last year that the NBCI does not have the resources to cope with the scale of murder and other serious investigations, most of which are going unsolved.

The leak investigation will centre on the Evening Herald, which is expecting to have its journalists questioned and even its premises searched. A very likely aspect of the investigation will be the examination of mobile phone records of journalists.

This happened in a previous garda investigation involving the same newspaper, and, garda sources say, has happened with other newspapers and journalists.

Reacting to the scale of the investigation being mounted against it, the Evening Herald's deputy editor, Ian Mallon said yesterday: "Only in Ireland can a politician break the law, and the whistleblower suffers."

He described the government-ordered investigation as "intimidation", adding that this "will not prevent the Herald, now or in the future, from breaking news of national and of public importance.

"There have been eight gun murders in eight weeks, including two in the past week. But, our highlighting of the illegal and grubby dealings of a Green junior minister, seems to have provoked more ire than any of these shocking crimes."

The investigation was ordered by the Minister for Justice in the wake of allegations by opposition politicians that he, as minister in charge of the gardai, would have had access to reports concerning Mr Sargent's correspondence with gardai about an investigation into one of his constituents.

This was not the case and the minister made it clear that the correspondence had never come into the Department of Justice and he was never aware of its existence until it came into the public domain.

Fine Gael members had tried to claim that the leaking of the correspondence was a "Fianna Fail plot" to damage the Green Party in the wake of the resignation of Willie O'Dea.

The garda investigation will have at its back the Garda Siochana Act 2005, which includes a provision for a sentence of up to seven years' imprisonment and/or a fine of €75,000 for any garda who "unlawfully discloses" information deemed to be harmful to an investigation or of a witness or other person the subject of an investigation.

The legislation has been condemned by members of the international journalists' association, one of which, Index on Censorship, said it had placed Ireland alongside countries such as Zimbabwe in terms of state secrecy and barriers to free journalism.

When the Government introduced this legislation it claimed that it did not seek to hinder gardai from disclosing information in the public interest or about corruption or criminal activity involving members of the Force.

The Government suggested that it would provide for legislation to protect genuine whistleblowers, but this never came about.

Sunday Independent

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