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Transparency International Ireland calls for radical reform of how corruption is investigated

Transparency International Ireland (TI Ireland) has urged the Government to radically reform how corruption is investigated. The call from the anti-corruption group follows today’s publication of the final report of the Mahon Tribunal which was set up in 1997 to investigate allegations of corrupt payments to politicians.

“It took 15 years and some €300 million to find out what the Gardaí and Standards in Public Office Commission should have exposed. The problem was law enforcement agencies were never allowed to do their job,” saidJohn Devitt Chief Executive of TI Ireland. “Public trust and confidence in the State’s political institutions is at rock bottom and the government needs to take swift action to ensure state agencies can properly investigate allegations or suspicions of wrongdoing.”

Among TI Ireland’s recommendations is a call for arevitalised Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) that would be equipped with the powers and resources to lead investigations into suspicions of wrongdoing in national, regional and local government without the need for a prior complaint. It has also called for an independent review of whether the Garda Siochana has adequate resources and training to investigate corruption and white collar crime.

The Tribunal found that corruption in Irish political life was both ‘endemic and systemic’ up to the late 1990s. But there is little evidence to show we have adequately tackled the root causes of this corruption and we have failed to introduce measures that would make government more open and accountable. Reforms to Ireland’s freedom of information laws, political party finances and appointments to State bodies have yet to be introduced.

Additionally, TI Ireland has said it hopes that the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) will investigate any payments made to the former taoiseach Mr Bertie Ahern, Padraig Flynn, or any other person who has been unable to explain additional sources of income while serving as a public official.

In addition, TI Ireland makes the following recommendations:

  • Registers of interests for all public officials should be published online.
  • Legislation should be introduced to set “cooling-off” periods to prevent former ministers and senior public servants from taking paid work in the private sector which could involve a potential conflict of interest.
  • All public bodies should implement fraud and corruption alert plans and whistleblower polices should be implemented and placed online.
  • Freedom of information fees should be removed and the scope of the FOI law expanded to all public and semi-state bodies including An Garda Siochana.
  • Political finance laws should provide for maximum and timely disclosure of party finances at national and local level.
  • Introduce a statutory Public Affairs Register that requires any individual, or organisation, that has been offered or received income to influence legislation or public policy in any given three month period to file an online return to the Standards in Public Office Commission. Read TII’s submission to government on this here:

FAQs on Corruption & the Mahon Tribunal

1. What is the Mahon tribunal?
The Mahon Tribunal (formerly the Flood Tribunal) was established in November 1997 to investigate allegations of corruption in planning and land rezoning. Initially based on evidence provided by whistle-blower James Gogarty, who alleged that he paid money to Minister Ray Burke in order to influence the rezoning of certain lands for development on behalf of his employers JSME (Joseph Murphy Structural Engineers), the tribunal went on to thoroughly investigate the activities of several seniorministers, politicians and public servants.

2. Why was it established?
In July 1995 an ad appeared in two newspapers offering a £10,000 reward to anyone who could provide information on any political corruption within the planning process. James Gogarty became involved. Media investigation and attention followed for the next two years when Ray Burke was eventually named in July 1997. This led to the issue being discussed in the Dail, Ray Burke resigned and the tribunal was launched.

3. To establish corruption, does there have to be proof that favours were awarded in return for any payment or gift?
No. Any payment offered or received in order to influence a public official is deemed to be a corrupt act under the Prevention of Corruption Acts 1889 to 2010. This includes influencing a public official to give advice, the release of information or the untimely release of information on a public contract or State licence competition. No proof would be needed that any transaction directly secured a state contract or licence for a finding of corruption to be made.

4. Does money have to change hands for a prosecution to take place?
No. Sufficient evidence of an offer of any gift or advantage in an attempt to influence a public official is grounds for prosecution. Offering an advantage for ‘services to be rendered’ or an attempt to pay a ‘kickback’ to a public official for ‘services already rendered’ is also an offence.

5. Does a public official have to benefit directly from a bribe or attempted bribe?
No. It is sufficient that any person is offered a bribe once the purpose of the bribe is to influence the conduct of a public official. A bribe may be any payment or advantage, such as a loan, job offer or insider information. A political party, a business or consultancy may also be regarded as an ‘agent’ under the terms of the Prevention of Corruption Acts.

6. Is witness testimony required to secure a conviction for corruption?
Witness testimony is not required under the Prevention of Corruption Acts to secure a conviction for corruption. A jury simply needs to be convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that corruption has occurred. In some cases financial evidence may be sufficient, in others, witness testimony may be necessary. This is the reason why universal ‘whistleblower’ legislation and some form of witness leniency programme are urgently needed.

7. Were there any convictions as a result of the tribunal?
Criminal prosecution does not stem directly from a tribunal. Evidence heard by a tribunal cannot be presented in criminal proceedings against the person giving that evidence. A new investigation must be launched by the relevant authority but this is often based on findings exposed during the tribunal. Consequently, involvement in the Mahon tribunal could lead to criminal prosecution.

8. How hard is it to secure a criminal conviction for corruption?
Since 2001, it has been much easier for the authorities to secure a conviction of corruption than was previously the case. While the burden of proof still rests with the prosecution in corruption cases, a public official may have to show that any hidden payments were not lawfully acquired. If they cannot prove this, the assumption is made that the payment was a corrupt one. Of the eight prosecutions for corruption brought to court since 2003, seven have been successful. It would therefore be wrong to conclude that securing a conviction of corruption is impossible.

9. How corrupt is Ireland?
It is very difficult to say. Ireland is regarded by the international business community as being a relatively clean place to do business, although the evidence is that it is changing. It is currently ranked 19th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), down five places from 14th in 2010. According to Transparency’s Global Corruption Barometer, 90 per cent of the Irish public does not believe that the government is doing enough to stop corruption, while 60 per cent believe that levels of corruption in Ireland are rising.

10. What happens next?
The Government will likely forward the final Mahon Tribunal report to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). However the DPP cannot investigate alleged offences. The Gardaí will have to uncover evidence of wrongdoing again with a fresh investigation into the circumstances surrounding the case. This is because evidence and testimony presented at a Tribunal of Inquiry cannot be used to secure a criminal conviction against a witness in the tribunal. It could take years to conclude, however it should be noted that once a corruption-related case is brought to court by the DPP it generally has a very good chance of succeeding.

11. What kinds of recommendations does the Tribunal make?
The tribunal emphasizes the need to ensure that there are systems in place which greatly reduce both the incentive and opportunity to engage in corrupt activity. It makes recommendations in relation to planning, conflicts of interest, political finance, lobbying, bribery, corruption in office, money laundering and asset confiscation. The full list of recommendations can be found in Chapter 18.

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John Devitt
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