Saturday 24 February 2018

Sean Gallagher tries to limit damage, dodges questions

Account of €5,000-a-head fundraiser at odds with his previous claims

Sean Gallagher with his wife Trisha. Photo: Tony Gavin
Hugh Morgan of Morgan Fuels is Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams's constituency-office landlord
Presidential candidate Martin McGuinness on the campaign trail in Drogheda yesterday. Photo: PA reporters, Fionnan Sheahan, Michael Brennan and Cormac McQuinn

PRESIDENTIAL candidate Sean Gallagher today dodged questions about discrepancies in his accounts of his involvement in a Fianna Fail fundraiser in 2008.

He apologised for what he called confusion over the matter, but he categorically denied collecting a cheque for €5,000 from a businessman and convicted fuel smuggler for a chance to meet Taoiseach Brian Cowen and be photographed with him.

On Monday’s Frontline television debate he conceded that he may have taken an ‘envelope’ from Hugh Morgan.

"I apologise for any confusion. I wasn't sure whether, could he have given me a cheque to pass on to Fianna Fail, it wouldn't be a standard practice and I was unclear as to whether or not he gave me something," Mr Gallagher told Louth-based LMFM radio today.

The polls frontrunner said that he was in the ‘dying days’ of his campaign and he had 60 or 70 outstanding questions from journalists.

Speaking on the Michael Reade radio programme he said: “I don’t have a political office. I don’t have 20 or 30 of a staff and we are trying to answer the questions.”

Emails from journalists to Mr Gallagher have not been answered.

He has not answered questions arising from a loan of almost €83,000 he took from his company as well as questions related to the Louth fundraiser.

“Let me explain this,” Mr Gallagher said. “This is different from any other campaign that has ever been run. I am not a party machine. I don’t have the staff or the PR machines and the PR companies that people have.

“I have asked every journalist to send in the information, the questions so that we could email them back as technical as possible.

"Many of the questions that are asked can be dealt with by me or by some of my team verbally. When somebody sends in questions about dates and technical issues, there’s no way that I would have company accounts here in my office. I’ve got to go to the accountants and they’ve got to go through the files and bring them back."

Mr Gallagher said he had a team of accountants in Dundalk and they had responded to journalists' questions regarding his company Smarthomes.

He said the journalists had come back with 20 or 30 supplementary questions.

“They have to be sent back to the accountants. And so there is no cover up here. I have nothing to hide. In 10 years of running a business in Dundalk, nobody anywhere can raise any concerns about the issues and the propriety and integrity of Smarthomes,” he said.

The broadcast moratorium on the Presidential election kicked in at 2pm today prohibiting discussion of this and any other matters on radio and TV before voting tomorrow.

Mr Gallagher is now unlikely to explain glaring contradictions between his accounts of his role in Fianna Fail fundraising before voting takes place.

Analysts were today agreed that the revelations over a €5,000 a head dinner had damaged his campaign, but were at odds over whether the controversy was enough to derail his bid to become the next President.

Polls last weekend showed Mr Gallagher to have a substantial lead of up to 15pc on his nearest rival, Michael D. Higgins of Labour.

Mr Gallagher's version of events relating to the Fianna Fail fundraiser in Co Louth in 2008 changed substantially from the original explanation he provided a week ago when the Irish Independent revealed he attended and helped organise the corporate fundraiser.

Originally he said he invited a couple of people he knew to the event but he now admits he invited people he didn't know to the fundraiser and he did ask them to donate up to €5,000.

The fallout from the former Fianna Fail member's invitations to businessmen to attend the function with former Taoiseach Brian Cowen dominated his crisis-hit campaign.

In the closing stages of the election, his opponents were quick to point out that it was no time to "take a risk" and the presidency was about "credibility".

Last week, Mr Gallagher said he only contacted a small number of people he knew and repeatedly insisted he did not ask them for money for Fianna Fail. "At no point did he actively solicit any donations. He would have been in touch with a number of people he knew to tell them it was on," his spokesman said.

And Mr Gallagher said a day later: "And even of those who turned up, I have no idea whether they made a donation or not. That would be solely a matter for Fianna Fail."

But he now admits he contacted a businessman he didn't know and told those he invited to make a donation of up to €5,000.

He says he made contact with convicted fuel smuggler Hugh Morgan, who he didn't know, and invited him to the €5,000-a-head dinner.

"Somebody had given me his name," he said.

"What I was asked to say was there was a level of up to €5,000," he added.

Mr Gallagher still claims he didn't solicit donations.

"What I said was there was a fundraising event happening and if he'd like to come along he could make a donation. I'm saying that that's what I said," he said.

Yet he also agreed that this could be seen as soliciting a donation.

"Well it could be," he said.

Mr Gallagher also agreed he asked businesspeople he didn't know to attend the event.

"I asked a number of businesspeople in the area did they want to attend and one of them obviously recommended Mr Morgan as somebody who might like to attend.

"I asked people I did know and if they recommended somebody else that they knew," he said.

"This was a fundraising event and I informed anyone that I rang that there was a level up to which they could nominate or donate and that they would make that payable to Fianna Fail headquarters," he added.

FF last night refused to say which businessmen and property developers gave €5,000 a head at the fundraiser Mr Gallagher helped to organise.

Last week, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin declined to comment on the fundraiser attended by Mr Gallagher saying: "We're not involved in this presidential campaign."

Yet the party issued a statement yesterday confirming it got a €5,000 donation from Mr Morgan before the event took place, contradicting SF's claim that Mr Gallagher collected the cheque after the dinner.

But the party is refusing to say who else was at the corporate fundraiser attended by former Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Campaigning for his candidate, Michael D Higgins, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said he did not believe the Irish people would "take a risk" with the presidency.

"I think there have been questions raised about Mr Gallagher that he's attempted to brush aside. But as you saw from the audience reaction during the debate, the answers he has given to date have not been adequate and I think people will reflect on those.

"I don't think that the Irish people will take a risk with the Office of the President," he said.

Mr Morgan last night alleged that Mr Gallagher visited his business seeking a €5,000 donation for Fianna Fail -- a charge the presidential candidate denies.

The convicted fuel smuggler donated money to Fianna Fail, but he is also closely linked to leading members of Sinn Fein.

The €5,000 corporate donations made by the businessmen who attended the 2008 fundraiser did not have to be made public by Fianna Fail because they were €100 under the legal threshold for declaration.

Under the law, a party has to declare a donation only if it exceeds €5,078.95, meaning it can take as many sums as it likes below that threshold and not reveal them.

For the year of 2008, Fianna Fail only declared €11,800 worth of corporate donations.

Irish Independent

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