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An investigation in Ireland has found that Digicel owner Denis O’Brien made payments to a former government minister to help him secure a mobile licence 16 years ago that helped him make a fortune and branch off into his lucrative mobile phone operations in the region – a charge he has vehemently denied.
Justice Michael Moriarty, who headed the tribunal, concluded that OBrien paid Ireland’s former Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications Michael Lowry significant sums of money and, in exchange, Lowry gave O'Brien, “substantive information (that was) of significant value and assistance” to his Esat Digifone company securing Ireland’s second mobile licence ahead of rival bidders, in 1995.
The final 2,350-page report published on Tuesday highlighted payments amounting to almost £900,000 (US$1.4 million), made or facilitated by O’Brien for properties in the UK, which the tribunal linked to Lowry.
The tribunal said it was satisfied that the payments and other benefits were related to the awarding of the licence and accused the former minister of a "cynical and venal abuse of office".
But both O’Brien – who is Ireland’s richest man according to Forbes magazine which this month put his fortune at US$4.2 billion – and Lowry have denied the allegations.
O’Brien, who sold Esat Digifone to British Telecommunications (BT) for US$2.4 billion in 2000 and earned US$240 million from the sale a year before going on to launch one of the largest mobile companies in the Caribbean, said the report was “fundamentally flawed” and was strictly based on the opinions and theories of the tribunal.
“I wish to state in the most categoric terms once again that I never made any payment to Michael Lowry in his capacity as a government minister, as a public representative or as a private citizen,” the Digicel chairman said in a statement issued after the release of the report.
O’Brien wants probe into judge’s conduct
He went further, calling for an investigation into Justice Moriarty’s conduct. According to O'Brien, the judge admitted last year to making two errors which had been used to substantiate “false theories”.
“The reason these errors were admitted was only because they had been uncovered by the diligent work of members of the legal profession. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the chairman makes no reference to the concealment of crucial correspondence by the tribunal from the office of the attorney general over an eight-year period. It has been evident from the outset to me and to many other witnesses before this tribunal that the final report would be designed to damage the reputations of many reputable people,” he said.
“I believe it is now incumbent on the judiciary to investigate the conduct of Mr Justice Michael Moriarty and the tribunal legal team for the manner in which they conducted themselves.”
Digicel also issued a statement yesterday saying that it was in no way affected by or involved in the tribunal report.
“The tribunal is made up of one member, Mr Justice Moriarty, who is expected to present what is referred to as a "reasoned expression of opinion" relating to the matters he has investigated. As a "reasoned expression of opinion" the report has no legal effect or consequences,” it said.
Digicel went on to sing O’Brien’s praises, describing him as “the driving force behind revolutionising mobile communications across the Caribbean and the Pacific, making mobile communications accessible to all and ensuring that customers benefit from best value, best service and the best network”.
It said that O’Brien’s vision, drive, energy and integrity continue to be integral to Digicel's success that includes having 32 mobile licences across the globe, more than 11.5 million customers, and 5,500 employees worldwide.
Lowry, meanwhile, also contended that the report has no basis in law.
“I intend to study the report in detail and in due course, to challenge its veracity,” he said.
The tribunal had been set up in 1997 to probe his financial affairs as well as those of former prime minister Charles Haughey. The circumstances surrounding the awarding of the licence to the Esat Digifone consortium – the biggest contract ever awarded by the State to a private company – had been the focus of the work of the tribunal since 2007.