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Jody Corcoran: Judge close to verdict on whether Bertie's round figures all add up

FIFTEEN years on, the Mahon tribunal is expected to publish its final report in the next few weeks, that is, shortly before the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis in March, an event which seems set to be dominated by fallout from the findings of Mr Justice Mahon and his colleagues.



The Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, is said to be contemplating a definitive response to the report, which itself is widely expected to be critical of the more unusual aspects of the financial affairs of his predecessor, Bertie Ahern.

The core allegation against Bertie Ahern arose out of a claim by the property developer Tom Gilmartin, to the effect that fellow developer Owen O'Callaghan had told him some time in 1992 that Mr Ahern had been paid by Mr O'Callaghan the sum of £80,000. Mr O'Callaghan strenously denies Mr Gilmartin's allegations.

Mr Martin's response will be interpreted as an attempt to draw a line under all of that, to allow Fianna Fail to move on, but he will also be anxious not to go overboard in his reaction, specifically if the tribunal, as seems likely, is unable to find the core allegation proven.

The tribunal need not have regard to the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt, of course, but may, as many expect, make findings based on the balance of probabilities.

In that respect, the tribunal will have regard to a curious sequence of lodgements to various bank accounts in the name of, or associated with, Mr Ahern, which equated to round dollar and sterling amounts and which arguably correlate a sum of £80,000.

While the report will also deal with other controversial aspects related to planning and payment matters, there is little doubt that the report is primarily awaited for its findings in relation to the former Taoiseach.

As the tribunal has not sat in public for almost four years, it is worth reminding ourselves of the events which ultimately led to the acrimonious resignation of Mr Ahern as Taoiseach on May 6, 2008.

The sum of £80,000 was, acording to Mr Gilmartin's evidence, allegedly made up of £50,000 in 1989 and £30,000 on an unspecified date, probably in 1992.

Mr Gilmartin said that he was told by Mr O'Callaghan that the £30,000 was paid to Mr Ahern while he was Minister for Finance in order to block the tax designation being sought by Green Properties Limited in respect of its rival development at Blanchardstown, Co Dublin.

Following this allegation, the tribunal examined the bank accounts of Mr Ahern. It subsequently emerged, to some surprise, that Mr Ahern claimed he had held no bank account in his own name until December 1993.

Up to then, he claims, he held all of his savings in cash, at safes located in St Luke's in Drumcondra, and at Government Buildings.

At the time, Mr Ahern was involved in a difficult breakdown of his marriage, an event which he claimed was central to the unorthodoxy of his financial affairs at the time.

In tandem with this, a clear picture emerged of his apparently seamless public and private life in that funds available

to him were also used to assist in the running of his political machine in Dublin's north inner city.

Between opening his first bank account in AIB O'Connell Street in December 1993 and December 1995 -- a period of two years -- £201,189.11 was lodged into his accounts.

Most of these lodgements are thought to have been sterling cash lodgements; one is believed to have been a US dollar lodgement, though Mr Ahern denied this.

At the time, of course, £200,000-plus was a massive sum. It still is. There is little doubt that Mr Ahern had great difficulty explaining the comings and goings of these funds through his accounts.

It must also be said that these events occurred at a time when there was no requirement, as there is now, for politicians to hold stand-alone private and public sources of funding.

There is little doubt, also, that the costs associated with the tribunal itself have caused great unease, not least because the final bill will come in at a time of enforced austerity.

To date, the Mahon tribunal has cost €100m, but the final cost is estimated to be a multiple of that, at least €250m and maybe more when third party costs are adjudicated upon. The €100m so far expended has, in a large part, gone towards payments to the tribunal lawyers themselves, 17 of whom have earned in excess of €1m in fees.

In fairness, the tribunal's smooth progress had been stalled by a succession of legal challenges and other obstacles which were placed in its path over the past almost 15 years.

In September 2006, a story appeared in the Irish Times which detailed some of the reasons Mr Ahern was going to use to justify large cash lodgements to his bank accounts.

The story was based on a leaked letter from the tribunal to businessman David McKenna, which inquired about payments he may have made to Mr Ahern around Christmas 1993.

Following several days of controversy, Mr Ahern did a memorable interview on RTE television with anchorman Bryan Dobson.

During the interview, Mr Ahern elaborated upon the story leaked and detailed two alleged dig-out payments, and a Manchester payment. Since then, much of what Mr Ahern said in the interview has come under scrutiny.

The interview introduced the nation of a host of characters, friends and associates of Mr Ahern, who he claimed had given him "loans" which were only repaid after the details emerged.

Certain words and phrases also entered the lexicon, none more memorable than that of "dig-out", and also the sublimely Ahernesque explanation of a particular lodgement: "political donation for my personal use".

Of all of the sums, it was the equation of four lodgements to dollars and sterling which remained the most problematic.

The tribunal found a number of discrepancies in the story given by Mr Ahern in relation to his lodgements. At the core of these discrepancies was the non-rounded lodgements to his accounts, or accounts operated for his benefit by Celia Larkin, his former partner.

There were four main foreign exchange lodgements:

- A £24,838.49 lodgement on October 11, 1994 which equated to stg£25,000.

- A £28,772.90 lodgement on December 5, 1994 which equated to $45,000.

- A £9,743.74 lodgement on June 22, 1995 which equated to stg£10,000.

- A £19,142.92 lodgement on December 1, 1995 which equated to stg£20,000.

When added up, the suspected foreign exchange lodgements amount to £82,498.05, or stg£55,000 plus $45,000.

According to the tribunal, if one applies exchange rates from 1989 on the stg£55,000, and exchange rates from 1992 on the $45,000, it is feasible to get £50,000 and £30,000 Irish punts, the same figures at the core of Mr Gilmartin's allegation.

In March 2008, more foreign exchange transactions emerged, totalling £15,500. These monies had been lodged on Mr Ahern's behalf by Grainne Carruth, the secretary in St Luke's, whose experience in the witness box proved to be distinctly uncomfortable and which ultimately led to the resignation of Mr Ahern as Taoiseach .

But Mr Ahern did not leave quietly.

In January 2008, he rounded on the tribunal, declaring it "not beyond question or reproach", not a "sacred cow" and adding that some of its lawyers' questioning of him "went beyond the bounds of common decency".

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Ahern said: "If we are saying that people are not allowed to say anything negative about the tribunal, then we are living in an era of the Star Chamber."

Sunday Independent