Thursday 15 November 2018

Lowry may face standards probe after 380 complaints

THE Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) will convene in the next two weeks to decide if Michael Lowry should face a public inquiry.

Three hundred and eighty people made an official complaint to the Dail Clerk that the former Fine Gael minister had ignored ethics rules for nine years. That's 17 times the total number of complaints received by Sipo for all of 2011.

Mr Lowry failed to declare a half-share in 20 acres near Wigan on his register of interests. He said the land was "worthless" and below the necessary €13,000 threshold which requires legal disclosure.

The Tipperary North TD told the Irish Times that the complaints were "orchestrated and co-ordinated". He went on to say that the complaints "arose from a deliberate initiative to encourage such complaints".

At this point, dear readers, I must apologise. I should have engaged in deliberate initiatives to encourage complaints years ago.

Justice Matthew P Smith is the chair of Sipo. The other members include the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the clerk of the Dail and Seanad, and former North Tipperary Minister Michael Smith.

If this independent ethics body decide on an investigation, the apparatus of an inquiry officer can be deployed which can seek discovery of documents.

As Conor Ryan's investigative exposé so tantalisingly outlined in the Irish Examiner during the week, there are plenty of documents to be discovered.

The number of investigtions by Sipo into members of the Oireachtas in its 15-year history is relatively low. The three most high-profile investigations were into Ivor Callely, Ned O'Keeffe and Michael Collins.

Sipo began an investigation into Mr Callely's mobile phone invoices, however, by the time the investigation was under way, the February 2011 election had occurred and the senator from Dublin North Central, via Cork, was no longer a public representative and so the investigation was discontinued.

The Limerick West TD Michael Collins was revealed to have had a bogus non-resident account which he used to evade tax. Sipo could not initially investigate because no one complained.

Under the legislation, the ethics body is powerless to initiate investigations into TDs or senators who are not ministers unless there are complaints. The chairman of the Committee of Members' Interests of Dail Eireann himself lodged the complaint, but that investigation was postponed until the matter had been dealt with by the DPP.

Mr Collins retired at the 2007 General Election. Subsequently, he was found guilty in the courts of obtaining a tax-clearance cert under false pretences.

Mr O'Keeffe was a junior minister in the Department of Agriculture under Bertie Ahern when he was investigated in relation to an alleged conflict of interest regarding his family's pig farm. Sipo ruled that he was in breach of ethics legislation, and the Cork East Fianna Fail TD was subsequently forced to resign as junior minister.

The Mahon tribunal made 19 very specific recommendations to beef up the tame powers of the Sipo, which are about as meaningless as the unaudited, self-regulated and narrowly defined register of interests it regulates.

What about this for a legal anomaly: if Mr Lowry is found guilty for breaching the conflict of interest provisions, the maximum penalty is one month's suspension from the Dail and/or a fine. In contrast, a local councillor who breaches the same provisions may be the subject of a criminal prosecution. Mahon has recommended that the same penalties apply to both local and national politicians.

Nine months since Mahon issued its recommendations, where are the government proposals to reform the Sipo?

Feck your ineffectual ethics penalties, Mr Lowry has a horse outside.

He sold a foal for a whopping €452,025 on Friday at the Tattersalls' December foal sale.

The filly was born to his mare, Wedding Morn, which was sired by Danehill Dancer. The full brother of his latest foal is called Probably.

If only the provenance of other things was so clear cut.

Sunday Independent

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