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Cattle dealer wins marathon 16-year battle with State

A cattle dealer pursued by the Department of Agriculture for 16 years has won his 'David and Goliath' battle after the State dramatically dropped all 160 charges and awarded him a substantial settlement.

The resolution of the cases against John Fleury of Killyon, Co Offaly, and a company - now dissolved - associated with him, leaves the taxpayer facing a massive legal bill.

It raises serious questions about the conduct of the Department's Special Investigation Unit (SIU) in relation to Mr Fleury, which racked up enormous legal and administrative costs. The Fleury case has always caused concern. Then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern personally ordered a report from the Department, which defended its conduct.

The terms of last Monday's shock settlement are secret, but pressure will mount on the Department to explain its pursuit of Mr Fleury and the cost to the taxpayer.

Legal experts say the legal bill alone could reach €500,000, not including the financial settlement to Mr Fleury. The Department denied this, saying the costs were a "small fraction" of that figure.

However, during 16 years of complex legal proceedings the State employed up to half a dozen different senior counsel and a similar number of junior counsel. Four years ago, Mr Fleury sued the Department for €5.7m, though the case was struck out on the grounds of delay.

Mr Fleury refused to disclose the details of the settlement, saying he was bound by the confidentiality agreement. But he told the Sunday Independent he was "exceptionally happy" with the settlement.

"We are delighted, absolutely thrilled with the settlement, after 16 years of hell. I would not have survived this ordeal without the support of my wife and family, my local Department of Agriculture and the old farming families in the community."

The legal saga began in March 1998 when Department vets stopped a consignment of cattle as they were being loaded onto a ship bound for the Lebanon. The cattle were being shipped by GVM Exports, a 50/50 partnership between Mr Fleury and Golden Vale Marts.

It was alleged that ID cards for the cattle had been altered and there were discrepancies relating to Brucellosis pre-movement tests. These allegations were always vehemently denied by Mr Fleury and Golden Vale Marts.

Four days before Christmas in 1999 there was a dawn raid by six officials from the SIU and a local garda, on Mr Fleury's home where he lived with his wife and five children. The SIU spent six hours searching the farmhouse.

Later the same day, they went to the nearby home of his mother, Patricia Fleury, and searched the house, including an attempted search of her handbag. At the time the late Mrs Fleury was terminally ill and was recuperating after cancer surgery.

Subsequently, some 160 summonses were issued against Mr Fleury and the company.

In 2003 then Labour leader Pat Rabbitte told the Dail the 160 summonses against Mr Fleury were "reminiscent of the summons spree against the Donegal publican Frank Shortt". Mr Rabbitte said Mr Fleury would be due "large amounts of compensation" if his charges of harassment are "even partially proven in future."

The Department paid out €3.7m in legal costs and damages in the past three years alone, arising from cases taken against it.

The settlement with John Fleury will add considerably to that bill.

Sunday Independent