Seán Fitzpatrick’s acquittal at the Irish Criminal Courts of Justice last month has sparked questions over the effectiveness of Ireland’s corporate crime-fighting agency, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE).
Fitzpatrick was the chairman of Anglo Irish Bank before stepping down in December 2008 amid hidden loan allegations. The bank had collapsed earlier that year after excessive lending during the so-called Celtic boom years. Anglo Irish was nationalised in 2009 by the Irish government and was wound-up in 2011, after having received a total of €30 billion in bailout funding from Irish taxpayers. Widespread public outrage followed the bank’s collapse at the perceived recklessness of its conduct, with Fitzgerald the recipient of very negative media attention.
Fitzpatrick on trial
Fitzpatrick’s resignation came amid controversy over hidden loans. For eight years Fitzpatrick concealed from auditors loans totalling €87 million that he had borrowed from Anglo Irish (by transferring them temporarily at year-end). Fitzpatrick conceded that this behaviour was inappropriate but denied any illegality, though he did resign as Anglo Irish Chairman. In 2014 he went on trial over allegations that he attempted to prop up Anglo’s share price, charges on which he was acquitted.
Fitzpatrick went on trial for a second time for allegedly misleading auditors over details of Anglo Irish’s lending. He was acquitted, again, in May as the case against him collapsed after it was revealed that the ODCE had used contaminated evidence as part of its prosecution. Judge John Aylmer told Fitzpatrick that the prosecution had nothing against him and that he was therefore free to leave. Thus ended the longest legal case in Irish history (127 days).
Opposition party leader Micheál Martin described the collapse of the trial as a ‘damning indictment’ of the ODCE; the Irish Timessaid the trial’s collapse was a ‘debacle’, describing the ODCE as a ‘mess’, whose ‘incompetence helped wreck the prosecution case’.
Where had the ODCE gone wrong? Its website includes ‘Raising Standards of Compliance’ as one of its main goals, along with ‘Identifying Suspected Misconduct’, so its objectives are clear and transparent. Furthermore, the organisation doesn’t lack the clout or credentials to build a case, with lawyers, accountants and detectives from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (the Fraud Squad) at its disposal.
Following Fitzpatrick’s acquittal the ODCE put out a press release offering some clues, using it as an opportunity to both accept responsibility for the trials failure but also remind the public of its past successes. In it, the ODCE stressed that the judge’s criticisms, whilst valid, refer to incidents and practices that occurred in 2009, and that subsequent changes had been made to the ODCE’s organisation structure and risk management practices.
However, there are still concerns to be allayed — by its own admission, the post of Detective Inspector within the ODCE has been unoccupied since last autumn, raising questions of how such a senior role can be unfilled for such a duration, especially given that the ODCE blames being ‘not equipped to undertake parallel investigations’ for what it describes as its own ‘very serious failures’.
A report on the case has been commissioned. In the meantime, the ODCE is investigating a case which could be just as significant as the Fitzpatrick one, providing the compliance-body with the opportunity to repair its damaged reputation.
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