Wednesday 11 December 2019

A developer, a cleaner, and lots of dirty laundry

Mutual bitterness was always set to overcome an appeal for common sense to prevail, writes Maeve Sheehan

LAST week, a young man studiously took notes from the back of the public benches as the legal action taken by the property tycoon Sean Dunne against his former cleaner Gina Farrell wound to a close. There was some curiosity when, on Thursday, Ms Farrell's legal team summoned him as their final witness.

Asked to introduce himself, he said he was a solicitor who qualified in 2006. He was acting solely for Mr Dunne in these proceedings, he said. Questioned further, he said he had delivered a cheque for €150,000 to the court, which was required as a security deposit for the legal action. Asked what name was on the cheque, he said Gayle Dunne, the property developer's wife.

His evidence demonstrates the interest Mr Dunne has taken in legal proceedings which the High Court judge has described as "ludicrous".

Ms Farrell is being sued by Hollybrook Management Company Ltd, a property-management firm, for alleged overcharging and double billing for her cleaning services to the tune of €120,000.

Mr Dunne is neither party to the proceedings, nor a director of Hollybrook, but Ms Farrell has claimed he is effectively behind the legal action.

Hollybrook manages an upmarket apartment complex in Foxrock that was developed by Sean Dunne's companies, DCD and Mountbrook Homes.

But Ms Farrell alleges that Mr Dunne controls the firm and that the legal action was taken at his behest as part of a vendetta against her.

Justice Laffoy has also noted Mr Dunne's interest in the case, referring to him as a "main player" in the proceedings because one of his companies is underwriting the "phenomenal" legal costs. The judge urged from the outset that the case be settled out of court. The case rumbled to a close on Friday after 16 days, much public airing of dirty linen and a hefty legal bill of more than €1m -- all to recover a disputed €120,000.

Ms Farrell cut a slight figure in the witness box. She is in her fifties, from Crumlin, and runs her own cleaning business. Her services were contracted by several building companies, not just Sean Dunne's. But from 2003 until they parted company in early 2006, his firms were her main clients.

In court, she claimed that she had provided housekeepers for the property developer since 1999. She knew his first wife, Jennifer, and also provided cleaners for the Shrewsbury Road mansion he shared with his glamorous second wife, the journalist turned barrister, Gayle Killilea.

Ms Farrell presented herself as a cleaner of exacting standards who took pride in her service. And it seemed that she was successful.

The court heard that she obtained a mortgage to buy an investment property in Celbridge in 2002. The following year, she bought a property in South Africa for €169,000. She said Sean Dunne asked his financial controller to go with her to her bank to help secure the necessary €130,000 loan.

According to Gina Farrell, things began to go wrong in 2005. By then Sean Dunne had recently married Gayle Killilea and they lived on Dublin's most expensive street, Shrewsbury Road.

In February of that year, she claimed, Sean Dunne found messages from his ex-wife Jennifer on a mobile phone owned by his financial controller, Martin Roche.

He wanted to know if Ms Farrell had given Mr Roche's number to Jennifer. Mr Dunne was concerned that Mr Roche could give sensitive information to his ex-wife, she alleged. Ms Farrell claimed that she went straight to Mr Roche and advised him to go to the gardai. He told the court he was "flabbergasted".

Mr Roche was suspended from DCD in February of that year, but the court heard that this was because of an allegation that he had transferred funds without authorisation. (Mr Roche said the company later withdrew the accusations and he resigned as a director of DCD on May 13, 2005 with a good reference.)

Ms Farrell suspected that her own voice messages had been "tapped" into in April 2005. At a meeting with Sean Dunne, she claimed the property developer questioned her about her contact with his ex-wife Jennifer. She claimed that he knew she had been speaking to Jennifer the previous week. He is alleged to have told her: "You will never work again in this town. Power and money is what I have and I will put you back on a bicycle."

Days later, Ms Farrell reported her suspicions that Mr Dunne had tapped into her voice messages to her local garda station -- claims that Mr Dunne denied.

Sean Dunne was unhappy with Ms Farrell after that, according to evidence given by Thomas Martin, a director of Hollybrook. He said Mr Dunne said he didn't want her cleaning his offices in Merrion Square. Martin terminated her contract.

The court heard that log books were kept by the concierges at the Hollybrook complex to record the comings and goings at the complex, including maintenance and cleaning personnel.

After the meeting with Mr Dunne, Ms Farrell took these log books from the store and took them home. She did so, she said, on the advice of an American lawyer, a friend whom she had met through Jennifer. At the outset of the case Ms Farrell had sworn an affidavit denying that she had altered records, the court heard. But in court she admitted that in fact she had altered the records. She referred to this as "tidying up", saying she wanted to make sure everything was "correct".

When Hollybrook sought the return of the log books, the company discovered the alterations. She was contracted to provide two cleaners from 9am to 1pm to clean the common areas of the Hollybrook apartment complex. She was accused of altering the books to make it seem as though two cleaners were at the apartment block, instead of one. In some cases the letter 's' was added on to the word 'cleaner' to make it plural.

The court also heard of multiple invoices that she submitted to different companies, allegedly for the same work. Ms Farrell submitted three invoices in April 2004, for example, each one for €4,000, the court heard.

Ms Farrell claimed that she charged €800 a week for cleaning Sean Dunne's house on Shrewsbury Road. That broke down as €450 or €500 for a cleaner from 8am to 4pm; €100 to clean Gayle Killilae's house twice a week; €70 for flowers and €130 which she said was profit.

She said all her of her invoices were submitted to either Hollybrook Management Company or to Dunne's building firm, DCD, where they were approved and signed by its representatives. But the court heard how Sean Dunne had never authorised or consented to pay €800 -- the figure was €600.

Other issues were raised in court. On March 19, 2005, when Sean Dunne and his wife were on holidays in Thailand, Ms Farrell brought her husband, son and a guest to see Sean Dunne's home on Shrewsbury Road. Ms Farrell insisted that she did so with Mr Dunne's permission because her American guest, Kate, was an interior designer. She said Dunne had told her that if Kate was ever in Dublin, he wanted her to see the house, to see if there was anything she would "change". Ms Farrell was also accused of allowing Martin Roche access to Mr Dunne's office in Merrion Square after he had been suspended. Ms Farrell denied this, as did Mr Roche.

"The reason we are here today is because of phone tapping," she said. She was sternly reminded by Ms Justice Laffoy that that was not what the case was about. The court was also reminded repeatedly by Hollybrook's counsel that the investigations into alleged phone interference had come to nothing. There were no prosecutions.

While Mr Roche also made a complaint to gardai about alleged phone interference, he said he later withdrew it "under extreme duress" -- but declined to elaborate on this.

Sean Dunne was once amongst Ireland's most successful developers but his fortunes have waned. The Shrewsbury Road mansion has been rented and he has relocated to America with his wife, Gayle. Nama has appointed receivers to some of the firms in his building group to recover €350m in outstanding loans. He also gave personal guarantees -- reportedly around €40m for the debts of one firm alone.

In his closing submissions, Paul Burns, for Hollybrook, said the Dunnes had a "legitimate" interest in the case. He accused Ms Farrell of a "vendetta" and of seeking "to present herself as a victim".

Ms Justice Laffoy reserved judgement until the autumn.

Sunday Independent

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

Don't Miss