Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Irish Times' Colm Keena recaps Libertas funding: Criminal charges may yet emerge

Standards inquiry turns spotlight on Ganley loan

ANALYSIS: Questions over funding may yet see Libertas founder Declan Ganley before the courts, writes COLM KEENA .

LIBERTAS AND Declan Ganley may be on the way out in the wake of their poor performance in the European elections, but the inquiry by the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) into how Ganley funded his 2008 campaign against the Lisbon Treaty continues.

Documents released by the commission to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) show the slow-moving wheels of the inquiry are continuing to grind. The possibility of a file being prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions features in one document.

The commission’s inquiry is focused on a number of aspects of the Libertas campaign but the major issue is the loan Ganley says he gave to Libertas. Last year he told the commission the personal loan involved “a detailed legal agreement with a repayment plan in accordance with commercial lending norms” and that this was “prepared and signed in accordance with the relevant section of the Electoral Acts”. Under the Electoral Act a loan must be a “bona fide” commercial loan.

A letter from Ganley dated July 7th, 2008 was received by the commission on August 13th. In response the commission sought a copy of the agreement referred to in the letter and a copy of the repayment plan. A copy of the agreement was sent to the commission at the end of March 2009 but was not released under FOI because it might prejudice the commission’s ongoing inquiry into “possible contraventions under consideration by the commission”.

In its response to the FOI request, the commission also said: “Past experience of inquiries made to Libertas by the standards commission has been that the organisation has significantly delayed its responses which has impaired the ability of the commission to effectively conduct such inquiries. Reasons given by Libertas for such delays have included reference to the previous release by the commission of records under FOI.”

It is understood the loan document supplied to the commission by Libertas is signed by Ganley, as the giver of the loan, and by his brother Seán, on behalf of Libertas. It is understood the document does not involve any third party institution or professional.

The Ganley loan is reported to have been for €200,000 and he has told the commission that his was the only loan. The total amount spent on the Libertas campaign was said by Ganley to be in the region of €800,000. There is no obligation on Libertas to disclose the extent of its expenditure to Sipo.

The former “executive director” of Libertas, Naoise Nunn, was the “responsible person” for the organisation’s dealing with Sipo. On June 19th, Sipo wrote to Nunn asking about the loan and two other matters. These were: the use by Libertas during its campaign of a book on the Lisbon Treaty published by the Brussels-based Foundation for European Democracy; and Nunn’s work for Libertas as well as that of another Libertas “executive”, David Cochrane. Both were employees of the Irish subsidiary of Ganley’s US company, Rivada, at the time they were working on the referendum campaign.

Reminders were sent to Nunn when no response was received. On August 12th a letter from the commission chairman, Mr Justice Matthew P Smith, was sent to him advising of the powers available to the commission to seek information and giving seven days to Libertas in which to file a response.

The letter from Ganley dated July 7th was received the next day. On September 30th, 2008 Nunn told the commission he had resigned as the “responsible person” on the 19th of that month. The commission was subsequently told that Seán Ganley had stepped into Nunn’s shoes.

During the referendum campaign, Nunn told this reporter that he was an employee of Rivada who did work for Libertas at the direction of Ganley. He said the same was the case for Cochrane. Bodies such as Libertas are prohibited by law from receiving funding or support from foreign companies and from receiving support above a certain value threshold.

Ganley directly contradicted Nunn. In his letter dated July 7th he said; “A number of employees of Rivada Networks who worked on the Libertas project did so in their spare time and on a voluntary basis.” Nunn when contacted by this newspaper and asked if he wanted to make any further comment or retract his earlier comments, declined to do so.

On September 11th, 2008, Ganley was asked for the number and names of the Rivada employees who worked on the Libertas campaign, whether they worked full time on the campaign or part time, and whether they took paid or unpaid leave to work on the campaign.

On the issue of the Brussels book, Libertas said during its campaign that it had distributed approximately 35,000 copies. In his letter to Sipo, Ganley said: “Libertas received a number of copies of The Lisbon Treaty: The Readable Version from the [Brussels-based] EU Democrats. The books contain no political messaging whatsoever and were distributed to the Irish public free of charge.”

The book has retailed on the internet for €20 and the use of the book raises issues similar to the Rivada issue.

In its letter of August 22nd, Sipo said the points made by Ganley in relation to the book were “not entirely relevant” and asked for Ganley’s views as to why the books should not be considered a donation.

Sipo made inquiries of the Brussels foundation and on April last the book’s editor, Jens-Peter Bonde, told Sipo that “Libertas received 1,000 copies of the book for free”. He did not respond directly to the commission’s question as to whether the book had been for sale, and at what price, saying there was no “real sale” of the book.

“It is . . . absurd to try to find a commercial value of these books. You could have as many as you like – for free.”

It is not clear what further answers, if any, have been received to date in relation to the book and Rivada issues. A memo of a Sipo section meeting on November 24th, 2008, records official Aidan Moore noting that the commission was still awaiting a response from the solicitors, Leo Branigan Co, Longford, who were by then working for Libertas. During the meeting he suggested “that the commission may need to consider whether it should refer a file on the matter to the DPP.” The comment was made in the context of the inquiry into possibly prohibited donations.

In March of this year, Sipo was supplied with the loan agreement and with a copy of statements on the bank account to which Libertas is obliged to lodge all donations. This information is confidential to Sipo and the document was not released under FOI. A letter dated April 29th of this year to Seán Ganley concerning bank transactions was not released under FOI both because Sipo is not allowed release bank statement information and because the release might interfere with its inquiry into possible contraventions of the Electoral Acts.

The loan agreement documentation sent in March was accompanied by a letter from Branigan solicitors that was also not released under FOI. In its response dated April 23rd, Sipo told the firm that the commission intends to deal with its inquiries of Libertas and the responses received, in its annual report which is to be presented by the end of this month.

The Branigan letter may have contained the Libertas responses to the matters raised.

In a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs in April, Sipo recommended that third party groups such as Libertas should be required to disclose details of their expenditure on referendum campaigns and the sources of their, and of political parties, funding. Also, it recommended that failure to co-operate with inquiries made by the commission should constitute an offence. It said it had received responses from Libertas to questions raised.

Libertas is a registered corporate entity. In April of last year The Libertas Institute Ltd filed accounts for the 2007 year. They showed no income or expenditure during the period. The accounts for the 2008 year have not as yet been filed.

Last week The Irish Times reported that the Libertas candidate in the Netherlands in the European elections, Eline van den Broek, has appealed to Declan Ganley to pay €350,000 the organisation owes as a result of its unsuccessful election campaign.

She said she had been assured by Declan Ganley that he would pay for the campaign and that the bulk of the money spent had been lent from the bank. However, a spokesman for Libertas said it had been made clear during the campaign that the money spent by Libertas candidates would have to be raised from donors and supporters.

It is understood most if not all EU states have laws governing foreign funding of political campaigns.

A spokesman for Libertas said he had no comment to make for the purposes of this article.

Colm Keena is Public Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times

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