Wednesday 21 March 2018

GSOC deputy chief lifts the lid on 'failures' at the Ombudsman HQ

Revealed: Ray Leonard puts the boot into watchdog boss and his former colleagues in a scathing five-page resignation letter

Mr Justice John Cooke
Mr Justice John Cooke
Simon O'Brien

Elaine Byrne, Maeve Sheehan and Philip Ryan

WHEN Ray Leonard resigned as deputy head of investigations at the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission last weekend, he claimed it was because of a litany of operational deficits and difficulties he had with the policing watchdog.

His extraordinary five-page resignation letter - seen by the Sunday Independent - reveals all was not well behind the glass doors of GSOC headquarters on Dublin's Abbey Street.

He claimed he had been excluded from meetings and was the subject of "disturbing" remarks, as he hit out at the failures of the policing watchdog to account and to "pro-actively" investigate cases involving senior Garda management.

Last Saturday, he decided to leave on "principle".

His departure was the latest curious twist in the Garda spying saga that brought GSOC to crisis point, seriously damaged the force, and prompted an ultimately inconclusive inquiry by retired High Court judge, John Cooke.

It was Ray Leonard who launched the investigation into suspicions that Garda were spying on GSOC in the first place.

He was one of three designated GSOC investigators involved in that investigation who were interviewed by Judge Cooke.

The report calls them Officers A, B and C.

While it gives no hints as to A and C's identity, Judge Cooke notes that "Officer B" was deputy director of investigations and later acting director of investigations - Ray Leonard.

An experienced investigator and longstanding public servant, Mr Leonard had worked on the Ansbacher inquiry into offshore deposit accounts while in the Revenue Commissioners, and later managed the Competition Authority's Cartel Division.

When tensions began to rise in the offices of GSOC in 2012 and 2013, he was not only in charge of running GSOC's day-to-day operations, he was also deeply involved in the watchdog's highly sensitive investigations into Garda operations - the most sensitive of all being the investigation into the handling of a drug-trafficking garda informant, Kieran Boylan.

When Judge Cooke asked Mr Leonard and the other investigators about the background to setting up the investigation into alleged Garda spying, Mr Leonard and the other officers explained to Judge Cooke: "The pressure they had been under and the atmosphere of anxiety and tension that came to exist within the Commission during the latter half of 2012 and the first half of 2013 as a result of what they saw as a serious deterioration in relations with the Garda Siochana and particularly with officers at the most senior level in the force."

Judge Cooke was also told about suspicions that they were the targets of surveillance.

They cited mobile phone batteries that were going flat within hours of charging - apparently a tell-tale sign of bugging - and remarks made by the Garda Commissioner at a meeting with Simon O'Brien, the GSOC chairman, as addeing to "suspicions".

These remarks - which suggested some kind of insider knowledge on the part of the Garda Commissioner - were later incorrectly stated as the reason for setting up the public interest investigation into suspected Garda bugging of GSOC.

Simon O'Brien had already made moves to sweep the offices for bugs long before the Commissioner's remarks.

A report by Verrimus, the UK security firm brought in to conduct the sweep, flagged up two unexplained anomalies in the system.

On receiving the Verrimus report on October 8, Mr Leonard, with the agreement of Simon O'Brien, launched the public interest investigation into the suspicions that gardai were spying on GSOC.

Mr Leonard later told Judge Cooke that gardai were not the only suspects. He also considered "organised criminal groups, possible uncontemplated persons or identities" and "journalists" but Garda eavesdropping "couldn't be ruled out".

Judge Cooke found that, in retrospect, the public interest investigation was not "immediately necessary" and "possibly premature".

He noted that neither of the two anomalies highlighted by Verrimus were indicators that gardai had misbehaved or committed an offence. And he noted that the decision to set up the public interest investigation was not taken by all three GSOC commissioners.

Commissioner Carmel Foley was briefed after the event by Simon O'Brien, as was Commissioner Kieran Fitzgerald, who was on holiday.

The Cooke Report also suggested that Ray Leonard and the other investigators might have missed a trick when evaluating suspicious activity around the GSOC building when Verrimus returned to Dublin to do more tests in late October.

There were reported sightings of a man in a baseball cap in a local coffee shop, sightings of a white van with blacked out windows, two men circling the block outside the office, and later, the two Verrimus investigators photographed by strangers in the departures lounge at Dublin Airport.

But Judge Cooke suggested that the spies could have been from the Garda security branch doing a bit of counter surveillance on Verrimus to find out what it was doing in Dublin.

The firm's investigators had called on Garda headquarters while in the capital, to interest them in training and equipment, and even though GSOC officers were aware of this, "the possible significance" of it "does not appear to have been appreciated".

The public interest investigation concluded in November last year with no evidence of surveillance.

It was written by Officer C, finalised by Ray Leonard and circulated internally. It remained in a safe until after its contents were leaked to the Sunday Times in February.

A storm of controversy raged. The three GSOC Commissioners were in the throes of being publicly called to account over the bugging scandal, there were calls for their resignations, and Judge Cooke was appointed to investigate. Meanwhile, Ray Leonard prepared his stinging critique of the organisation he worked for in a personal submission to the Oireachtas Justice Committee on enhancing GSOC's role. His employers had prepared a more measured submission.

But Mr Leonard's pulled no punches. He attacked the Garda Siochana Act as a"poor piece of legislation", insisted there is "insufficient work" to justify the full-time employment of three commissioners in an "era of constrained public finances".

He suggested Commissioners should have investigative experience, specifically "in this jurisdiction", and that the chairman should be a judge.

Commissioners Foley and FitzGerald had no previous experience of justice matters and Mr O'Brien's policing career was mainly based in the UK. In response to queries from the Sunday Independent, Mr Leonard said: "It would be incorrect to conflate views expressed on organisational structure and strategic direction as connoting any personal criticisms whatsoever."

Mr Leonard was listed to attend the Justice Committee hearings on May 13, along with his employer but he did not show up. It was reported last week that he did not get clearance, but sources said that it was not deemed appropriate that he appear while the Cooke inquiry was still under way.

Last Saturday, the "gulf" between Mr Leonard and his employer widened. Mr Leonard resigned "on a matter of principle", despite putting he and his family at a financial disadvantage. He raised again GSOC's investigatory powers, its credibility and independence.

He also claimed that his role had been "downgraded". He was asked to stop going to weekly "elevenses" meetings and the monthly commissioners' meetings. Having participated in decisions on GSOC's strategic direction and investigative matters, he was no longer consulted - a "de-facto demotion". He claimed he had been subjected to "disturbing remarks" that he could only interpret as "threats".

Mr Leonard suggested that the "downgrading" started after he failed to make it past the first round of interviews when the post of Director of Investigations was advertised last year. But the Cooke inquiry was "final confirmation" of the "gap between us", he wrote, with the "unfortunate manner in which my reputation, credibility and competence came to issue" in the Ombudsman Commission's meeting with Judge Cooke.

He didn't specify what it was the Commission said about him. He acknowledged the "remedial efforts" to correct it with Judge Cooke, but said "an unbridgeable breach" remained.

Mr Leonard will not formally step down until September 19. In response to queries from the Sunday Independent, Mr Leonard said: "I am still a civil servant for the duration of my notice period. I am, therefore, bound by the usual requirements to maintain confidentialities."

But it's unlikely we have heard the last of the Garda bugging scandal. And with an Oireachtas committee expected to examine the Cooke report and the fall-out for GSOC, Mr Leonard may yet get an opportunity to air his views in public.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News