Wednesday 19 June 2019

Garda corruption probe: the covert operation that led gardai to three suspects in uniform

Concerns that local crime gangs had insider information sparked full-blown investigation, writes Maeve Sheehan

Photo: Stock picture
Photo: Stock picture
Criminal Assets Bureau. Photo: Gareth Chaney / Collins
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

It started with one suspect detective. Late last year, deep inside the Garda's Special Operations section in the Phoenix Park, surveillance devices tuned into a conversation between a detective and a criminal.

The eavesdroppers in Garda HQ had been following the detective's interactions for weeks. But last November the technology captured a nugget: according to informed sources, the detective appeared to be tipping off the criminal about an impending Garda raid on his gang, due to take place within days.

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Concerns in the division that local crime gangs were getting insider information hardened into suspicion; the investigation deepened into full-blown probe of Garda collusion with criminals, led by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigations (NBCI).

It was late November when an NBCI team alerted the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) that there might be a leak. The agency that seizes the illicit proceeds of crimes was in the throes of planning a significant raid on the gang at the centre of the collusion probe. The CAB suspected the gang was running a massive money-laundering enterprise turning over luxury cars and using them as currency for crime transactions, to the value of millions.

Fears that the tightly controlled preparations could be compromised spooked the bureau. CAB raids - as with any Garda raid - are designed to take their targets unawares as they swoop on their illicit wealth, from cash to luxury designer goods and cars. Years of investigation and months of logistical planning can go into a single dawn raid. One tip-off can put an entire operation in jeopardy - and with it the prospect of dismantling a criminal network.

"It was a jolt," said a source. The bureau set about protecting its operations. Its already tight network of Revenue, gardai and financial investigators became even tighter. The CAB raid eventually went ahead successfully, although with greater secrecy than usual. Local senior Garda officers were shut out of it entirely, a departure from the normal protocol of providing them with advance notice. A precaution, but one that may yet prove justified.

The suspect detective had been placed under intense surveillance by the NBCI. Part of its probe involved running covert listening operations, on phone devices linked to the suspect garda and to criminals. One source said a listening device was placed on the suspect garda's car. The investigation also involved the NBCI setting a trail of disinformation to see where it would lead.

"Misinformation was part of the process," said one informed source. "Basically, false information was put out to see where it would end up and who it ended up with."

The investigation moved on further when it emerged that the information allegedly shared by the suspect detective was not free. Gardai suspected that he was paid €20,000 for allegedly unauthorised disclosure of information to criminals.

The investigation - or at least that part of it - came to a head in January when the suspect garda was arrested under anti-corruption legislation, along with a civilian. Both were released without charge.

But the detective's arrest marked the beginning of a bigger investigation into alleged corruption on a scale unprecedented in the force. The suspect garda's house was searched, mobile phones and electronic devices were seized, and he was suspended from the force. For the past five months, the NBCI has been following up the leads that have been shaken out from that probe.

None were more surprised than gardai at where those leads have brought them: the detective's one-time boss, a serving superintendent, and a Garda pal.

Last Thursday morning, the Garda superintendent was arrested, according to one source as he reported for work. He was questioned about allegedly leaking sensitive information about Garda activity.

That same morning, the inspector was arrested at his home on suspicion of drugs offences.

The suspended detective, who was said to be pals with both men, was arrested for the second time on suspicion of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. The three men were held separately in Garda stations outside of their divisions. According to sources, evidence based on the monitoring of electronic devices was put to them during their detention.

The three men were released without charge and all of them have been suspended from duty. The names of those arrested and the Garda divisions they are attached to cannot be disclosed for legal reasons.

Sources believe the investigation into alleged corruption will not stop at these three suspects. "This is far from over," one source said.

The arrests have generated shock across a force that has been blindsided by a litany of recent scandals: from letting motorists off penalty points and the mass inflation of breath tests for drink-drivers to the shameful treatment of whistleblower Maurice McCabe and the ongoing concern about the accuracy of Garda crime figures.

The allegations in this latest case are of the kind that could be a plot line in the BBC police drama Line of Duty.

The suspect detective is a seasoned garda who has worked on the front line of serious organised crime in a busy Garda division. He has led investigations into violent gangland criminals, resulting in several being locked up, and at times at his own risk. His work is believed to have brought him into one of the most sensitive areas of policing - and one of the trickiest to navigate - running criminal informants. A local source said he was at one time drawn into an internal inquiry after allegations made by a criminal - but he emerged unscathed and unblemished.

The Covert Human Intelligence System (CHIS) was established in April 2006 after the Morris Tribunal recommended gardai set up formal procedures for registering and supervising relationships with informants.

The term covers all sorts of Garda sources - from casual contacts to informants and agents that provide information to gardai.

Managing these CHIS sources is "a skilled police function, demanding the highest standards of integrity and shall be conducted by experienced personnel, working in a secure environment to the clear requirements of an informed and supportive management", according to an official statement on the Garda's website.

Operating at that nexus where law and order meets the underworld, integrity is the operative word.

One of the triggers for the NBCI probe in the first place was the discovery last October that another garda in the division who was experiencing a difficult personal situation appeared to have been blackmailed into doing favours for a connected criminal gang. He was accused of approving fake insurance certificates and other documents for gang members who were regularly stopped for motoring offences. He was suspended the same month. That case, which is still under investigation, demonstrates how gardai regardless of rank can be vulnerable to damaging allegations made by criminals for their own gain.

It is no surprise that while the NBCI has been conducting its top-secret internal investigations, the relatively new Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, has been publicly talking up plans to set up an anti-corruption squad within the force.

Just a week before last week's arrest, the Commissioner announced that a new anti-corruption unit would be up and running before the end of the year. It will investigate drug use, leaks and inappropriate relations with criminals. The unit is a departure from the current internal structures of dealing with suspect gardai on a case-by-case basis, with inquiries headed up by senior officers appointed from external divisions. Questions will no doubt continue as to whether gardai should investigate gardai.

According to Dermot Walsh, professor of law at the University of Kent and an authority on policing in this country and in the UK, anti-corruption units serve an important function, once they are properly resourced with "the technology and access to internal systems to go after internal corruption".

"One of the methods is having an internal anti-corruption unit that is focused on rooting out corruption practices that are not amenable to the normal methods," he said. Anti-corruption units in the UK also strictly vet police officers for sensitive posts.

That includes officers deployed on operations or activities that might introduce them to corruption, or who might be tempted to engage in corruption.

"The issue is it is almost impossible to crack internal corruption within police forces generally," said Professor Walsh.

"It is the nature of the beast." But, he warns, the important thing is they never stop trying.

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