One evening in March or April 2015, PR man Karl Brophy was listening to political talk fest Late Debate on RTÉ Radio 1.
Olm Keaveney, a TD from Galway, was on the podium. Brophy knew him from his student days before Keaveney became the Labor TD who defected to Fianna Fáil.
Listening to the show that night, Brophy noticed an error in something Keaveney had said – and took to Twitter to correct it.
In the weeks that followed, the TD and PR man bonded amid rising political debate about the nationalized former Anglo Irish bank, IBRC, its debt write-offs for certain customers and Siteserv.
The construction company has been in the eye of a storm since its inception, with €150 million in debt to IBRC. Of that, the bank wrote off €118m when it was sold to Denis O’Brien’s Millington for €44.3m in 2012.
IBRC said the deal offered the best return for taxpayers, but the sale was controversial. It exploded again in April 2015 when Keaveney and Brophy started talking.
According to Brophy, Keaveney was concerned about losing his Dáil seat in the next election and wanted to “raise his profile” by making speeches on Siteserv.
“[Keaveney] started looking for my help to try and make some sort of political capital [out of the Siteserv issue]’ Brophy said. He was “like to help”.
It noted the “long history of animosity” between Brophy and O’Brien
The text exchange is documented in Chapter 23 of the recently released report of the commission of inquiry into the sale of Siteserv. The report found that the sale of the company was “tainted with impropriety” but that there was no impropriety attached to O’Brien, who was exonerated.
It referenced the “long history of animosity” between Brophy and O’Brien, though it doesn’t go into detail.
O’Brien is suing Red Flag, Brophy and others in a lengthy court case alleging the public relations firm conspired against him, disseminated unflattering material about him and negatively informed journalists.
Brophy, a former journalist, was director of communications at Independent Newspapers, then the publisher of the Sunday independent.
When O’Brien took control of the group from Tony O’Reilly and his family, Brophy was fired from his €300,000-a-year role.
He took legal action but made up his mind, accepting that it was a cost-cutting decision in which O’Brien was “not involved, active or involved”.
He then founded the public relations consultancy Red Flag with Gavin O’Reilly as chairman.
He was Red Flag’s chief executive in 2015, when he began helping Keaveney in his efforts to “raise his profile.”
According to Brophy, he helped by compiling documents that were already in the public domain and presenting them to the TD in a way he felt was “useful.”
He texted him snippets via Site-Serv. One was about Niall McFadden, a Siteserv co-founder and investor, who the commission says took O’Brien on “boot camp” vacations and secretly helped him with his bid to buy the company.
But none of this was publicly available, as Brophy Keaveney texted in April 2015: “The allegation is that McFadden and other shareholders made a deal with DOB up front – he knew what to offer and in return they could stock.” buy cheap. Everyone won except the taxpayers.”
When the commission pressed Brophy as to how he had made this claim, he said it was “other journalists”. It was the story that “people were trying to get up,” he said.
That April weekend in 2015, Neil Ryan took the stage.
Ryan had worked in investment banking but became a civil servant in 2011 and joined the Treasury Department as Assistant Secretary.
The then Treasury Secretary had seconded him to the IBRC at a time of strained relations between the nationalized bank and officials. The relationship between the two was back in the spotlight this weekend.
On Saturday, April 25, Ryan’s cycling buddy Paul Hayes, a public relations executive, tweeted from the Fianna Fáil ard fheis.
Ryan texted him: “Would be interested in meeting MM [Micheál Martin] Sometime.”
Hayes: “I start from the current issues. Do you need his extension or a meeting?”
“Better hit,” Ryan replied.
Hayes texted Ryan the next day, “Have a way to a non-meeting with MM, which I think is what you need.”
Ryan replied: “Yep thanks.”
Unbeknownst to Ryan, Hayes contacted Brophy to arrange the meeting and Brophy contacted Colm Keaveney.
Brophy: “The Assistant Secretary who oversaw the IBRC and the banks at the Treasury Department and is still there wants a very confidential non-meeting
with your leader to give him some information. Would you like to organise?”
Keaveney replied: “Repeat?”
Brophy: The guy in the finance department who handles the banks wants to meet Micheál. But no one can know.”
Keaveney texted Martin, who wrote back, “Give me 30 minutes at the game.”
Keaveney: Good stuff. Senior CC [civil servant] want to spill. Understand that DOB and friends are in the process of attacking certain finance people to distract them and want to swap everyone out.”
Martin: “Okay, I’ll call you right away.”
Martin agreed to the meeting. Brophy texted Keaveney with Ryan’s name.
Brophy: Neil Ryan. Don’t embarrass him or even mention who staged it. He looks forward to meeting MM [Micheál Martin]. Apparently he was getting more restless as the week went on. But he has no opportunity to comment and I assume he is concerned about what will happen to his reputation. He is a very good banker and will know EVERYTHING.”
Keaveney wrote to Martin: “Neil Ryan wants to suck privately. He knows absolutely EVERYTHING. Is increasingly concerned about the narration. He wants to meet you privately. The person who set this up doesn’t want to be referenced as an intermediary. Ryan thinks the department uses fall types to distract.
He wanted the “opportunity” to present his side of the story
Within 24 hours Martin was at Ryan’s home in Dublin. But the commission report says there was no blowout.
Ryan told the commission he wanted to speak to Martin because a journalist had contacted him about a story and Ryan was concerned about the “media craze and all of a sudden my name got thrown in there”.
He wanted the “opportunity” to lay his side of the story before the leader of a party that could potentially be in government after the general election. Aware that Siteserv was the “topic of the day”, he told Martin right at the beginning that he had no information about Siteserv. Martin verified Ryan’s account.
Little did Ryan know his text request to Paul Hayes had sparked a spate of text messages that, as he put it, “escalated in terms of excitement,” according to the commission’s report.
He didn’t know where Keaveney got the idea that he was about to “blow”.
But not long after this exchange, in October 2015, a USB stick anonymously landed on O’Brien’s desk. It contained a dossier of unflattering information about him, most of it published newspaper articles, but also a critical draft of one of Keaveney’s Dáil speeches.
The report noted that the sale was “tainted by impropriety” but O’Brien did not attach impropriety to it
O’Brien launched his widely publicized action in the High Court against Red Flag, Brophy and others over the dossier, alleging conspiracy and defamation. He also sued Keaveney but later settled the case.
In a surprising twist, Keaveney became a key witness for O’Brien, providing a supporting affidavit linking businessman Declan Ganley to Red Flag.
O’Brien later named Ganley as the client behind the dossier. Ganley and all of the defendants deny these allegations.
Keaveney also delivered the text message exchange that revealed the Fianna Fáil leader’s meeting with the officer.
O’Brien passed these strings of text messages to the commission of inquiry and said they were relevant to his work. Mr Justice Cregan duly investigated whether Ryan Martin disclosed information about Siteserv in a private meeting and whether Brophy Martin provided information about Siteserv in a subsequent telephone conversation.
In his High Court case, O’Brien has alleged that Red Flag encouraged Ryan to meet Martin; that Ryan disclosed information regarding O’Brien’s private banking affairs and the Siteserv transaction – in violation of the Official Secrets Act; and by encouraging Ryan, Red Flag made himself guilty of aiding and abetting a criminal offense.
O’Brien last year won an appeal that granted him the discovery of documents to further his case.
However, Mr Justice Cregan, whose investigation focused on that meeting, found text messages “increasingly feverish” and “exaggerated” but nothing unusual.
The commission said Ryan did not disclose any information obtained in the course of his official work. It found nothing offensive in Micheál Martin meeting Ryan, as O’Brien had claimed, although Ryan should have informed his boss.
Brophy accepted that things had “probably escalated,” in a “Chinese whisper sort of way.” Keaveney was not questioned by the commission, but it found that his statement that Ryan “wanted to blow private” had no factual basis.
As for a phone conversation a few weeks later between Brophy and Martin about Siteserv, there was nothing unusual about that either. The commission’s report said that Brophy was simply “repeating” information that was already in the public domain.
Attempts to contact O’Brien’s spokesman were unsuccessful.
O’Brien’s action against Red Flag, Brophy and others continues in the High Court.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/siteserv-the-billionaire-the-civil-servant-the-pr-man-and-two-fianna-fail-tds-41997454.html Siteserv: The billionaire, the civil servant, the PR man and two Fianna Fáil TDs