Will corrupt leaders get their due?

DUBLIN — Frank Dunlop was always a pleasant colleague, if a bit pompous, and he was also very ambitious. That’s how I remember him when we worked together in the 1970s in a much-bombed media building in Belfast, he for the Irish broadcasting service RTE, and I for The Irish Times.

If he had stuck to reporting, Dunlop might not this week be adjusting to life in a prison cell, having received the longest sentence for corruption ever handed down by an Irish court. And several politicians and property developers in the Irish Republic would not now be shaking in their shoes, as Dunlop prepares to turn state witness against them.

But the broadcaster left journalism after his stint in Belfast and began a career in Dublin that was to make him one of the most corrupting figures in Irish society. He became  press officer for the Fianna Fail party, then was appointed government press secretary when that party came to power.

In 1989 Dunlop formed his own public relations company, with an unrivalled portfolio of contacts in government and the media. As the best-connected lobbyist in Dublin, he was sought out by developers seeking to secure both the favor of government ministers and the votes of local councilors, to have cheaply bought agricultural land rezoned for building.

Both sides well knew that, in Dunlop’s words, “the ways of the world would have to apply.” The consultant was supplied with large wads of cash to wine and dine and, if necessary, bribe elected councilors and officials. At meetings in the dark recesses of Dublin pubs, Dunlop would slip bundles of cash to these local government representatives to ensure they voted the way his clients wanted. Dunlop was well rewarded for his manipulative talents, and enriched himself further by investing in lands where he knew rezoning had been "bought."

The "brown envelope" culture in Irish politics was an open secret in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, but the parties were protected by a culture of omerta, and by a system that allowed developers to claim, if payments became public, that they were just making "political donations."

The first break came when a businessman, James Gogarty, claimed to have witnessed a developer handing over two envelopes containing a total of 80,000 Irish pounds ($140,000) in cash to then-Minister for Industry and Commerce Ray Burke. A tribunal into "certain planning matters and payments" was established in 1997 to investigate this and other rumors of corruption in high places. Burke was eventually disgraced and sent to jail for six months.

Another corrupt minister, Liam Lawlor, was imprisoned for a total of six weeks for failing to cooperate with the tribunal. (Lawlor was later killed in a car crash in Moscow.)

Dunlop’s name surfaced at the hearings as a facilitator of rezoning projects and he was called as a key witness. He indignantly denied allegations of bribery until one dramatic day in April 2000 when an undisclosed bank account in his name turned up in evidence, revealing large unexplained transactions over several years. He at first denied the money was used for “illicit or improper purposes” and the presiding judge famously advised him to “reflect” overnight on his evidence.

The next day, April 19, 2000, Dunlop began to talk. All the self confidence and pomposity was gone. Over 130 days of evidence at the hearings over a number of years, he confessed to corrupting councilors in more than 20 rezoning cases.

Some of Dunlop's stories were contradictory and evidently self-serving, as the more he explained away the huge sums of money he received to use as bribes, the less he laid himself open to tax liability. But on Tuesday the 62-year-old consultant was jailed at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court for two years and fined €30,000 ($42,000) on charges of bribing councilors to rezone land in Carrickmines, County Dublin in 1997. Having arrived at the Four Courts in a silver Mercedes, he was led off in handcuffs to a prison van.

The implications of the Dunlop affair are both immediate and far-reaching. Several politicians face prison and at least one developer faces the confiscation of his lands by the Criminal Assets Bureau. In the long term, it may mark an improvement in the standards of Irish public life, and the end of the "brown envelope" culture that has poisoned local government in Ireland for so long.

The final report of the tribunal, still many months away, is expected to be scathing about the role of former senior Fianna Fail politicians, including the ex-prime minister Bertie Ahern, who resigned last year after giving contradictory evidence about his murky financial dealings in the 1990s. “The word must go out from this court,” said Judge Frank O’Donnell when sentencing Dunlop, “that the corruption of politicians, or anyone in public life, must attract significant penalties.”

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