| 7.6°C Dublin

Dunne's links to cleaner case puts him in spotlight

TAKE a tale of a falling out between a property tycoon and his cleaner, add claims of over-charging and spice it up with a dash of the topic du jour -- alleged phone interference -- and it could be a recipe for the latest airport blockbuster. but this intriguing story is unfolding not in a novel, but in the High Court as part of a legal action linked to Sean Dunne, once dubbed the Baron of Ballsbridge, against his former cleaning contractor, the exotic-sounding Eugenia Pacelli, also known as Gina Farrell.

Mr Dunne is not actually party to the legal action but he looms large nonetheless. The legal action was taken by Hollybrook Management Company Ltd, which manages apartments developed by Mr Dunne on Brighton Road in Foxrock. This company employed Ms Farrell's contract cleaning business to clean the common areas of the apartment block. Hollybrook claims she over-charged and double-charged the company for her cleaning services and the company is now suing her.

Ms Farrell, for her part, claims that while Mr Dunne is not a director of Hollybrook, he controls the company and is pursuing a "vendetta" against her.

The presiding judge, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, has also described Mr Dunne as a "main player" in the proceedings because another of his companies, registered in the Isle of Man, is underwriting what she said would be the "phenomenal" legal costs.

As an erstwhile building tycoon, Mr Dunne is used to fighting expensive battles. Think of his knife-edge battle to buy the old Jury's Hotel site for €375m during his Celtic Tiger heyday or, most recently, his failed bid to keep control of his property empire as Nama circled. The agency was appointed to several companies in his DCD Group, to recover €350m in loans on Friday.

This dispute involves neither millions of euro nor

swathes of property, however. At issue is €120,000, the sum of the alleged overcharging.

In fact, given the amount of money involved, Ms Justice Laffoy seemed to question the wisdom of pursuing it. On hearing last month that the case could run for five days, Ms Justice Laffoy invited both sides to consider mediation to save legal costs that could be "many multitudes" of €120,000. On learning that the hearings could actually take seven days, she described the situation as "absolutely ludicrous" and hoped "common sense" would prevail.

But Gina Farrell declined the offer of mediation, given the allegations already made against her in open court.

According to the evidence heard in court, she and Mr Dunne were once on friendly terms. Her business -- Gina Farrell Contract Cleaning -- provided cleaners for the apartment complex on Brighton Road in Foxrock, and other properties in Mr Dunne's building group.

She had provided cleaning services for the family home in Foxrock that Mr Dunne shared with his second wife, Gayle Killilea. She also knew Mr Dunne's first wife, Jennifer, from whom he had separated.

According to Ms Farrell's account outlined in court last week, the discord sprang from a crucial meeting in 2005. In April that year, she claimed, Mr Dunne invited her to a meeting to discuss the cleaning services she provided to his properties.

Mr Dunne immediately started questioning her about when she had last spoken to Jennifer, she claimed. He allegedly told her that she "could not work for Jennifer anymore because Gayle said women talk".

Ms Farrell told him she had last spoken to Jennifer the previous year but she claimed Mr Dunne said he knew she had been speaking to her the previous week. He then demanded that Ms Farrell give him her phone, which she did, she claimed.

"He questioned me over a lot of things on my phone and he said, 'You and I are going to part company'," she said.

He then allegedly said: "You will never work again in this town and I will put you back on a bicycle. Power and money is what I have and I will put you back on a bicycle."

She claimed she told Mr Dunne he could not tell her whom she could speak to. A heated conversation followed. She rose from her seat and said: "Eaten bread is soon forgotten," and left.

Later, while she was "having a cup of tea", it occurred to her that Mr Dunne had gone through her voice messages. She claimed that the questions he had asked could only have come from having heard those messages on her phone.

The following Saturday, Ms Farrell was on duty at Mr Dunne's offices on Merrion Square. She claimed she saw a note of some details from those voice messages, in his handwriting. She photocopied the note and went straight to gardai to make a complaint. An investigation followed but no action was taken.

Ms Farrell claimed she was later fired as cleaning contractor to two apartment complexes which Mr Dunne's companies either built or partly built, in what she alleged was a "vendetta" against her. She claimed that she was taken to court over alleged overcharging "solely at the behest and instructions of Mr Dunne". And she claimed Mr Dunne told Thomas Martin, a director of Hollybrook, to "get that woman".

Mr Martin insists this is not true. The first witness to testify, he claimed that Gina Farrell had the contract to clean the common areas of the Brighton Road apartment complex since 2003. But he discovered that she had allegedly been overcharging and double-charging the company.

He examined the log books, which recorded the daily comings and goings at the apartment complex, and discovered a number of alterations. Each book had been razored from the spine, he claimed, pages were missing and entries appeared to have been altered in different handwriting. In some cases, the letter 's' was added to the word cleaner to suggest that there had been more than one working on a particular day.

Hollybrook hired forensic examiners to inspect the log books. They found "insertions" to suggest two cleaners had arrived to clean the complex when sometimes they hadn't.

Mr Martin claimed that Ms Farrell's company was sometimes paid twice or three times more than it should have been paid. In some cases Mr Dunne's companies, DCD Builders and Hollybrook, had both paid for the same cleaning service. He claimed he terminated cleaning contracts for several apartment complexes after discovering the allegedly doctored log books.

He told the court that Mr Dunne was unhappy with Ms Farrell after her allegations that he accessed her phone. He didn't want her company cleaning his offices in Merrion Square any more. Mr Martin said he then wrote to Ms Farrell and terminated the contract. But Mr Martin insisted the decision to bring her to the High Court for alleged overcharging was solely his.

Questioned about the allegedly doctored log books, Ms Farrell later said she knew she was about to lose the contract for the Brighton Road apartments in Foxrock, and she became careful in her dealings there. She obtained the diaries kept by the concierge at the complex and "tidied up" the entries relating to her cleaners.

Ms Farrell is due to be cross examined on her testimony when the case continues this week.

Hollybrook's legal team have already insisted during the hearing that there was no substance to Ms Farrell's allegations of phone interference. At one point, the legal team insisted the allegations against Mr Dunne were not relevant to the case.

However, Ms Justice Laffoy dismissed their objections, saying that Mr Dunne was "a main player", as one of his companies registered in the Isle of Man had underwritten what would be the "phenomenal costs" of the case.

The hearing continues.

Sunday Independent