/ 13 September 2007

Irish prime minister testifies on his cash-heavy past

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who admits receiving a string of cash payments from businessmen, denied doing anything wrong when he began testifying on Thursday to an anti-corruption judge probing his foggy financial past.

At stake are the reputation and legacy of Ahern, Ireland’s popular leader since 1997 — the same year he authorised a judicial probe into a culture of bribery involving some of Ireland’s top politicians, lobbyists and property developers.

That marathon investigation, led by Justice Alan Mahon, has spent years trying to get to the bottom of allegations that Ahern himself took money during his 1990s time as Ireland’s finance minister and rising power-broker inside Fianna Fail, Ireland’s dominant and most ethically troubled party.

In an opening statement, the 56-year-old Ahern denied ever taking bribes. ”I have done nothing improper. I have done no wrong,” he said.

He was expected to face questions for two days about why he kept no Irish bank accounts from 1987 to 1993 and about more than €100 000 in cash payments into his and his ex-girlfriend’s newly opened accounts in 1994 and 1995.

His lawyers tried to stop the Mahon probe from publicly investigating his financial records at all. They successfully delayed Thursday’s start of testimony until after the May national election, when Fianna Fail rolled to a third straight victory even as Ahern suffered a barrage of questions over his personal finances.

Details of Ahern’s receipt of unexplained cash payments were leaked last year to the Irish Times, Ireland’s newspaper of record, and forced Ahern to admit he received untaxed payments from at least 39 businessmen. In his statement, Ahern said the pre-election leaks were ”calculated to do me enormous personal and political damage”.

Gripping testimony

This week’s testimony at Dublin Castle has gripped the nation. State broadcaster RTE — which cannot record and air the real testimony on radio or television because of court rules — have hired actors to dramatise the transcripts at length on the morning and evening news.

Already, Ahern’s ex-girlfriend Celia Larkin and a key financial benefactor, England-based businessman Michael Wall, have given evidence this week, trying to explain a string of strange financial transactions. The Irish media have broadly dismissed their accounts as bizarre and implausible.

Larkin, who broke up with Ahern in 2004, said during her Wednesday testimony she had seen Ahern carrying wads of British cash to his office safe during one of Wall’s visits to Dublin in December 1994 — the weekend before Ahern expected to be elected prime minister.

Ahern failed to rise to power on that occasion, when Fianna Fail’s would-be government partners pulled out and backed a rival coalition.

Larkin stuck by her previous accounts to investigators that the money was to be used to refurbish a three-year-old house that Wall was buying in Dublin for Ahern’s personal use.

She said she carried the money in a briefcase to the bank, which she believed contained £30 000 (approximately €45 000) but she never counted it. She insisted, simultaneously, that the money remained legally Wall’s — even though she deposited it into a new account in her own name — and was being ”administered” by herself to invest in home improvements.

The investigators and Ahern’s legal team have spent months arguing about whether the money deposited that day was even British pounds or, as the Mahon probe suspects, United States dollars. If proven, this would point to a different, undisclosed source of payments.

Ahern insisted he had never dealt in American money, even though Allied Irish Bank officials say their records show no major deposits of British funds at the branch that day, while the money credited to Ahern’s account equated exactly to $45 000.

Ahern said his lawyers had found a mathematical formula that backs his story and refutes the possibility of dollars, but he declined to explain it.

Larkin testified that Ahern also asked her to transfer 50 000 Irish pounds from his own account to hers on that December 1994 day, then a few weeks later drove her to the bank so she could take that same amount out of her account to give back to him.

When asked to recall the reason for these transactions, Larkin replied — to a torrent of laughter from the public gallery: ”Bertie dealt in cash. I think he felt more comfortable with it.” — Sapa-AP