MCELVANEY HITS THE NATIONAL HEADLINES FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS

12 December 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

By MICHAEL McDONNELL

michael@northern-standard.ie

IF Monaghan’s veteran public representative Hugh McElvaney had hoped his recent resignation from Fine Gael would put him in the media spotlight, he could hardly have foreseen the kind of blanket national broadcast and print coverage he is attracting this week — for all the wrong reasons.

In an investigative documentary aired on RTÉ television on Monday night, Cllr McElvaney is filmed telling an undercover female reporter that, for £10,000 sterling (roughly €13,800), he will help a company she pretends to represent to set up a wind farm project in Monaghan.

At one theatrical moment in the programme, he tells the woman that if the project is successful he wants “loads of money”, while gesticulating dramatically as he appears to mimic a person swiping cash from the table and stuffing it in his pockets.

While he attempted to downplay the repercussions of the startling ‘RTÉ Investigates: Standards in Public Office’ exposé by light-heartedly quipping on Northern Sound radio earlier in the day that he expected his local pub to be “full tonight to see the television”, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the programme itself will stand as a damning indictment of the Corcaghan-based county councillor — who was also numbered among public representatives who failed to fully declare their property interests.

If the broadcast itself left viewers across the country lost for words, Cllr McElvaney’s own words were coming back to haunt him, with his long-celebrated ability to come up with a good quote appearing to backfire spectacularly.

Lines like “What’s in it for me?”, “What is there for the darkie?”, “You need to sweeten a man up”, “You’d need to put sterling on the table, Nina”, “Ten grand would be a start”, and “Yeah… it’s a nice little figure isn’t it?” may make for great television, but the general reaction to the programme, as evidenced in the first instance on the Claire Byrne Live show that immediately followed, cannot make for easy listening for Hughie or the two other main protagonists on Monday’s show.

Included in this initial response was that of Cllr McElvaney’s erstwhile party colleague, Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who said that while most of the politicians in this country worked hard and were “not involved in corruption or personal gain in any way, unfortunately in all walks of life you have bad people.”

Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil on Tuesday that there was “no place in public life for what was witnessed by the people of Ireland on the RTÉ programme last night”, while attempting to assure Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams that new anti-corruption legislation would come before the Cabinet next week.

Mr Kenny, who is pictured shaking hands with Cllr McElvaney in the TV programme, said it was “utterly unacceptable for any public representative to use his or her position for financial and personal gain”.

In any event, an undaunted Cllr McElvaney yesterday (Wednesday) gave his own “side of the story” to the Northern Standard, where he continued to insist that he knew what was happening all along, but “did it to expose RTÉ’s dirty tricks”.

The RTÉ Investigates broadcast also looked at how the country’s 1,186 elected politicians, made up of 949 councillors, 166 TDs, 60 senators and 11 MEPs were completing the mandatory ‘Annual Ethics Declaration’ forms in which they list what they own and where they might earn money.

Reporter Conor Ryan explained that these statements were designed to ensure that politicians’ private interests would not influence their public decisions.

All politicians in the country had been researched, he said, regardless of party affiliation or position. Discrepancies found in the declarations made by a number of TDs and senators were highlighted.

In the case of country councillors, Mr Ryan said his team found there had been a clear failure to fully disclose property interests right across all local authorities. Just over 40% of councillors across all the mainstream political parties declared no property at all, not even the home they were living in, even though they were required to do so.

Many of the councillors who were contacted in relation to the issue had stated that their omissions in filling out the form were “inadvertent”, “an oversight”, “an error” or due to “an honest mistake”.

CAVAN AND MONAGHAN COUNCILLORS LISTED

Two county councillors based in Cavan’s Bailieboro-Cootehill electoral area were mentioned. Fergal Curtin of Fianna Fáil, who had failed to list his directorships of three companies, an occupation, a home, a farm, and two rental properties, had stated, “I had honestly, if mistakenly, believed the above were not relevant for the purpose of my annual declaration.”

The declaration submitted by Fine Gael’s Val Smith had not included any land, but when contacted by RTÉ he accepted that it was an error not to list a home, a farm, a rental property and a contract to purchase another house, viewers were told.

While not mentioned directly in the programme, Monaghan-based Fianna Fáil representative Robbie Gallagher is on the RTÉ Investigations Unit’s website among a list of councillors around the country who had responded in relation to omissions found in their declarations.

In relation to his not having registered his directorship of a company, RV Financial Services, Cllr Gallagher is cited as explaining that he sold the company in March 2013 to another firm of financial consultants, and that he had no further involvement in it and was getting no benefit from it.

Mr Gallagher’s accountants are cited as having confirmed that he had resigned as director of this company, and that notification of his resignation had been sent to Monaghan County Council.

THREE COUNCILLORS

Hughie McElvaney was one of three county councillors who were covertly filmed offering their services to an undercover RTÉ reporter going under the name of “Nina Carlsson” from Iceland, who pretended to be representing an investment company that wanted help and advice on how to establish wind farms in the politicians’ respective constituencies.

Fianna Fáil has confirmed that its Sligo-based councillor Joe Queenan resigned from the party after being filmed offering to act as an intermediary for the fictitious company, “Vinst Opportunities’, in return for an investment or loan of €200,000 in an agri-feed business he was planning.

John O’Donnell, an independent member of Donegal Co Council, was filmed as he appeared to intimate that he would accept payment though a business partner for work he would carry out in helping determine possible sites and on planning issues regarding a wind farm.

Cllr O’Donnell, whose council colleagues have called on him to resign, has accused RTÉ of “entrapping” him and has indicated he will be seeking legal advice on what he called a “sting operation”.

LURED “INTO THEIR OWN TRAP”

On Northern Sound’s ‘Joe Finnegan Show’ on Monday morning, prior to the RTÉ broadcast being aired, Cllr McElvaney seemed to be in jocular form as he claimed he knew all the time that he was being “set up” by RTÉ, but played along in order to “lure them into their own trap”.

“I knew it was RTÉ,” he told Mr Finnegan, adding: “They’ve trapped me before. And I knew well that there was somebody acting the fool with me. So I lured them into their own trap. There’s no problem — it’s the greatest piss pull that ever was taken in this country. It puts Mike Murphy and PJ Gallagher into the shade.”

He also hints that his former party, Fine Gael, might have “set RTE up to do me”, stating: “It’s quite a coincidence, Joe all right. I can’t believe that the party would have moved so fast, if they did. I’m not accusing them of it, but I speculate that maybe they did: set RTÉ up to do me.

“They’ve already got rid of one TD, and now they’re getting rid of a leading councillor in Monaghan. I don’t know was it locally or nationally, but that’s speculation. That’ll have to sorted out at a later stage.”

“Well RTE are the State broadcaster aren’t they? And Fine Gael are the State; the Government.”

In an article in Saturday’s Irish Independent, Cllr McElvaney is quoted as stating that RTÉ was trying to “character assassinate” him, and he again insists that he was “playing along” with the undercover reporter. He also claims that it was by “coincidence” that he resigned from Fine Gael after being contacted by RTÉ about their investigation.

For its part, RTÉ has stated that it is satisfied it acted fully in the public interest.

“STRAIGHTFORWARD METHOD”

After being warmed up by the covert videos involving Cllrs Queenan and O’Donnell, Monaghan viewers are treated to streetscapes in Clones and the County Town itself, reminiscent of what might be seen in a tourism promo, as what transpires to be the headlining act for everyone in the country gets set to take centre stage.

Cllr McElvaney’s part in the programme is introduced by the narrator, Conor Ryan, in less than flattering terms: “In Sligo we had a request to fund an undeclared business venture. In Donegal, we were directed towards a classic middleman to do the deal. But when we got to Monaghan, we met someone who preferred a far more straightforward method — cash in a bag.”

Hughie, described as “one of the most senior politicians at local authority level in Ireland”, appears against a Clones backdrop during last year’s local elections declaring that, “The local councillor is the bread and butter of public representation, in my book.”

Viewers are told that he secured his Monaghan Co Council seat for a ninth successive time during those elections, that he has been mayor of Co Monaghan four times and was chairperson of the Local Authority Members Association from 2009 to 2014. He still sits on the board of LAMA, a representative body for councillors that each year gives awards for best practice in the sector.

After being informed that Cllr McElvaney has “a significant shareholding” in a waste disposal business with a turnover of more than €16 million a year, the viewers are told that in his declaration of interests signed on February 12th, he “swiped a line” across a section where he was supposed to declare his property interests, and did not disclose that he owned “a substantial farm in Cavanagarvan, houses and commercial property”.

The programme adds: “If those properties were not on his mind on February 12th, they were a day earlier, when he submitted two separate planning applications to Monaghan Co Council to develop a house on one location and a storage facility on another.”

It goes on to state that Cllr McElvaney was also a director of a consultancy company, which he did not mention. Then the reporter reveals that, six weeks ago, the Monaghan councillor got a call from “our fictitious wind energy investment company, interested in a county where there is currently only one active wind farm”.   An audio of the resulting “first five-minute phone call” is then replayed, in which Cllr McElvaney, on the face of it, condemns himself with his own words. (Here, in this edited version we initialise Hughie as ‘HMcE’ and the undercover reporter, “Nina Carlsson” as ‘UR’)

PHONE CALL

HMcE: I have a question for you, Nina.

UR: Okay.

HMcE: I have a question for you

UR: Okay.

HMcE: What’s in it for me?

UR: Well we believe that you could be uniquely placed to help us predict what might happen in the council and what might happen in the communities.

HMcE: Correct. Yes. No doubt I can help.

HMcE: What are you putting on the table for me?

UR: Well….

HMcE: All of these investors are wantin’ to come to Ireland… What is there for the darkie?

UR: Well…we need you to help us evaluate sites and chose between them…that’s what we need.

HMcE: Yes. Are you going to pay me by the hour or by the job?

UR: Yes. We want you to work with us on that.

HMcE: Yeah ok. Hold on. I’m going to ask you a question again.

UR: Whatever you want, McElvaney.

HMcE: Are you going to pay me be the hour or by the job?

UR: Yes. With information you offer, you would get paid for it.

HMcE: Right. Ok…

UR: Ok. But this is strictly private, and our investors want to remain private….and confidential.

HMcE: Yes…I want to be private as well. Yes. Sure. So when are you coming to Ireland?

UR: I am coming to Ireland in two weeks and…

HMcE: I will meet you.

UR: Yes. You will meet me. Great. Then I can give you all the details and all the information we have.

HMcE: And you have plenty of sterling with ya. You need to sweeten a man up, do you know what I mean?

UR: Yeah.

HMcE: Aye you need to sweeten him up.

UR: I hear you’re ready to work with us on this, so I’m very glad, you know. This is exactly the information we need…..

HMcE: Sure….but you’d need to put sterling on the table, Nina.

UR: How much do you want? How much do you need.

HMcE: Ten grand would be a start.

UR: Ten grand… great.

HMcE: Yeah… that’d be a start.

UR: Yeah. It’s a good figure.

HMcE: Yeah… it’s a nice little figure isn’t it?

UR: Sorry?

HMcE: Sorry? It’s a nice little figure.

GREATEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The programme then switches to Professor Gary Murphy, of the School of Law and Government, DCU, who says what was said in the phone call is, “in one way the greatest disappointment I’ve seen in 20 years as an academic and scholar of Irish politics… it’s the antithesis of the public interest.”

The narrator outlines how, following his request for £10,000 in cash, and “without asking for any details on the company or the specifics of its intentions”, Cllr McElvaney agrees to meet.

At this point viewers are taken into a meeting room, where a video stream of Hughie embellishing his comments with sweeping gestures of arm and hand accompany the intriguing soundtrack. When “Nina” states at the outset, rather ironically, that the meeting is “confidential”, Hughie agrees that “anything we do from here on in is utterly confidential”, before striking a slightly darker note with his comment, “Because if you let me down, there’ll be war. Yeah.”

He assures the woman that he will do “a little bit of homework for your people in relation to this…. Because I know a lot of people.” Land would be purchased on condition that permission to build was obtained, and he intimates that he will “operate there for you as well.”

THE “CONDUIT”

HMcE: So I’m the conduit between your investment company and the Co Council… And I’m also the conduit between you and the people where you intend building.

Cllr McElvaney then outlines how “Nina” and her company will have to identify sites for their wind farm, and then, “speak to me in relation to that particular area, in relation to the people that live in it, in relation to the compensation that you may be offering them and all that kind of thing.”

UR: ….We want to make sure we get the planning permission before we go any further. You know what I mean?

HMcE: Yeah. That’s what you call pre-planning. But you can’t go in with a blank sheet to the planners, you have to have a venue.

The conversation switches to the money Hughie would require to do this .

HMcE: In money terms?

UR: Yeah, whatever.

HMcE: Well, it’ll be money. Sterling.

UR: Sterling?

HMcE: But not until we see how we approach it, and how we approach it and how we succeed. Don’t want money otherwise. If it’s not successful for you, I’m out of the equation.

UR: Okay.

Then comes the “pièce de résistance” for the 600,000-plus watchers, where Cllr McElvaney points to the other side of the coin in his no-foal-no-fee approach.”

HMcE: Yeah. But if it is successful for you… (making a gesture of the arms appearing to simulate pulling wads of cash towards him and then stuffing it in his pockets!) …I want loads of money.

UR: Yeah.

This passage has inspired a hilarious remix of Los Del Rio’s 1993 smash hit, ‘Macarena’, where the music and Hughie’s hand movements have delivered a social media hit that has gone “viral” nationally.

GOBSMACKED

David Waddell, a former Secretary, SIPO (Standards in Public Office Commission) then appears on screen to observe that [Cllr McElvaney] “made it absolutely clear that what he wanted was money — And lots of money.” Mr Waddell’s says his initial reaction is that he was “gobsmacked” by this “blatant…naked promotion of someone’s self interest at the expense of the public interest”.

In the final section of the video, Cllr McElvaney appears to ease back a bit when pressed on how much he would have to be paid, declaring that he was “only fooling” about the €10,000 (which, in turn, has prompted some observers to speculate that this might have been the point at which he sensed something being amiss).

UR: How much do you want?

HMcE: Ach, I don’t know Nina. Naw. I mentioned ten thousand to you on the phone. But I was only fooling.

UR: Okay.

HMcE: Lookit, somebody else will decide that for us. Okay?

UR: You know… we will decide the figure.

HMcE: We’ll see how we get on. We’ll not do any figures yet.

UR: Okay.

HMcE: But I’m not going to take anybody over a barrel, nor do I want to be pulled over a barrel either. I’d like a nice relationship in relation to all of this.

RESIGNATION FROM

FINE GAEL

The programme goes on to outline how “six days after the RTE investigations unit handed [him] a letter outlining the issues raised in our investigation”, Cllr McElvaney attracted national attention for the “principled” stand he took at a public meeting in Monaghan, where he resigned from Fine Gael, ostensibly in support of the anti-pylons campaign.

Grainy video footage from the anti-pylons meeting in the Glencarn on Monday 23rd November shows Hughie handing his “resignation” to Sean Conlan TD (who was himself to jump the Fine Gael ship the following day, again citing the pylons issue), before emotionally making the now ironic declaration: “I do this because I believe the political system is broken, and the people at the heart of this broken system are simply serving themselves.”

Referring to this polemic as “the policies of microphones and megaphones”, reporter Conor Ryan infers that what has been shown in the programme shows the “true value of transparency laws….. They exist so that we can also know the agendas of those we elect when they engage in secret meetings and in private phone calls.”

The broadcast concludes with another extract from that initial phone call, in which Hughie tells Nina he is “flexible” about when they can meet up, before adding a few more clangers: “Yeah, the more that’s in the bag, the keener I will be,” and, “Don’t tell anybody else our terms and conditions.”

DARKEST CHAPTER

Notwithstanding the brave face the 66-year-old councillor of over four decades’ standing is putting on the debacle, the whole episode represents what may well be viewed as darkest chapter in his career to date, eclipsing even the “air rage” controversy that saw him flying high in the national news in 1996, where it was reported that he was abusive to Aer Lingus staff after being refused a drink.

On top of that, the national clamour for prosecutions to follow in cases where elected representatives appear to be attempting to line their pockets, coupled with the confirmation by Monaghan Co Council (following on from a similar line indicated by local authorities in Sligo and Donegal) that it is to conduct a full investigation into the matter, in accordance with the relevant section of the Local Government Act 2001, can only be adding to the Corcaghan representative’s discomfort this week.

Known for his large-than-life character and a certain eccentricity of approach, he always seemed able to “get away with” comments that might have done damage to others in the public eye — but the question now boils down to whether or not he can get away with this one.

hugh

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