Whistleblowers have accused Simon Coveney and Enda Kenny of “political interference” in a Department of Agriculture criminal investigation into farmers and pharmacists

A whistleblower has accused Secretary of State Simon Coveney and former Taoiseach Enda Kenny of “political interference” to thwart criminal investigations by the Department of Agriculture into farmers and pharmacists.

Former Minister Richard Bruton, TDs of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the state’s top veterinarian, and a former President of the IFA were also accused of lobbying for the investigation to be dropped at a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) hearing this morning to have.

Louis Reardon, a veterinary inspector with over 20 years service at the Department of Agriculture, has complained to the WRC that he was being removed from a “prestigious” job with the Special Investigation Unit for making a protected disclosure in which he accused senior officials and politicians of “meddling” to block investigations.

The Department of Agriculture denies retaliation against the whistleblower in breach of the Protected Disclosures Act 2014.

Initially, the legal team tried to exclude the details of the protected disclosure from the evidence at a public hearing this morning, arguing that the documents were late-filed and not relevant to the claim.

Sarah-Jane Hillery BL, for the department, said the adjudicating officer had “no role in investigating protected disclosure” and she had “a very strong objection to hearing the documents”.

The sentencing officer, Tom O’Driscoll, said he had the authority to investigate the seriousness of a complaint and said he would accept any documents submitted from the outset.

Darach MacNamara BL accepted for Mr Reardon that the commission would not make a decision on the truth of his client’s proprietary disclosures but said he was entitled to produce evidence of what those complaints were to show their seriousness.

“It’s necessary evidence in the case,” he said. “Ms Hillery is understandably trying not to allow this document because she does not want this document to be heard publicly. This is part of the justice of the cause. Those wounds need to be exposed,” he added, saying he expects Ms Hillery to seek an order to anonymize the decision.

Ms Hillery said the matter had been the subject of “media coverage ad nauseam” and that it was “highly inappropriate” to air it publicly – going on to say the department had to protect the whistleblower’s identity.

Mr O’Driscoll said it was absurd to claim that the details of the proprietary disclosure were “well known in the media” when he did not know the details.

“This case is ongoing. I will not anonymize it because it is a matter of public interest,” he said.

Mr MacNamara said: “Mr Reardon’s case is that he was involuntarily transferred against his will – an embarrassing and humiliating development in an otherwise spotless record in the public service.”

Ms Hillery argued that Mr Reardon’s transfer was fully in line with recommendations from a steering group investigating the work of the Special Investigations Unit where he worked.

“It’s been a time of change,” she said, arguing that Mr Reardon had failed to settle into his new post-assignment duties and said it “just can’t be” that protected disclosure ended almost three years ago the reason for this was his transfer.

“When you’re investigating people who have been getting away with it for a while, or when my activities would have an economic or professional impact on them – they didn’t hesitate to lodge complaints,” Mr Reardon said.

He once described gaining access to a farmhouse during an investigation into a pharmacist and a farmer convicted of using illegal hormones and confiscating medicines found on the property.

Mr Reardon said the farmer wrote to him to look for the drugs but was told they would be withheld as evidence.

“He [the farmer] then went to Paul Connaughton TD and he [the farmer] made a number of allegations against my colleague and myself. He said we were both “rude, mean, violent and aggressive towards his paraplegic wife,” which was quite simply not true,” Mr Reardon said.

“Mr Connaughton went on to write to Minister Coveney to repeat these allegations and also claimed that records were made and could be made available if necessary,” he said. “That was a complete untruth.”

He said the farmer’s wife, who was in a wheelchair, had invited them into the house and was accompanied by her daughter-in-law – an off-duty Lake Garda – during the search.

Mr Reardon said he had become “increasingly frustrated” in the months leading up to his decision to make protected disclosure in August 2017 because “investigations were being obstructed”.

“Investigation itself has to be honest… it can’t be ‘don’t look at this guy’ or ‘don’t look at this issue.’ You have to go where the evidence takes you,” he said. “Honestly, I just thought the management’s behavior was wrong.”

“Was that a clever move of yours?” Mr MacNamara BL asked his client.

“Absolutely not from a professional perspective,” said Mr. Reardon. “It was the right thing.”

Mr. MacNamara then opened the hearing on the proprietary disclosure decision made by my Mr. Reardon to then-Agriculture Secretary Michael Creed on 2 August 2017.

Mr Riordan explained the first of eight issues raised in the document in relation to a company called Animal Farmacy Ltd.

“There was enough evidence to warrant an indictment. The investigation was stopped in its infancy before I could go to the actual pharmacy involved, where I felt there would be a lot more evidence of wrongdoing,” he said.

“There was political interference from then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Enterprises Secretary Richard Bruton and then Agriculture Secretary Simon Coveney. They also gained the support of John Bryan, head of the IFA, [and] John McGuinness TD,” he said.

“There is an email from the department’s chief legal officer telling Animal Farmacy that there are very serious questions to be asked and the sooner we take this case to court the better – that the political fog would clear.” , he added.

“Despite this legal advice from the department’s own legal team, the investigation has been stayed,” Mr Reardon said.

He said he was investigated twice over “baseless” allegations made against him by the company and a decision was ultimately made not to prosecute the company.

Ms Hillery objected to the level of detail in the evidence.

She said there were a number of people named “who are not here to respond” – adding that the investigating officer would not make a finding of fact in relation to the claims made in the protected disclosure.

“I think it goes well beyond the subject that is being raised before you today,” she said. “It’s not relevant.”

Mr Reardon then said he neglected to mention the name of Martin Blake, the chief veterinary officer.

Mr MacNamara said he could “short-cut matters” by skipping some elements of protected disclosure.

He said his client had informed the Minister that Mr Blake “had signed a contract with Animal Farmacy Ltd whereby they would not be prosecuted”, which Mr Reardon confirmed.

Mr MacNamara said Mr Reardon had also disclosed an allegation of “possible food fraud in relation to Bord Bia’s quality assurance system” and was known to be making a statement to Gardaí on 20 May 2014.

Mr Reardon confirmed he had told the minister he had been called twice a few days earlier by his manager who “admonished me not to make any statement to gardaí” and “indicated he had spoken to Martin Blake”.

He had requested this instruction in writing but never received it, he told the court.

“On May 15 and 16, 2014, I received calls from Brian Flaherty, then my Chief Veterinary Inspector, admonishing me not to make a statement to Gardaí. He indicated he had spoken to Martin Blake but denied it had anything to do with his request,” Mr MacNamara said. “That’s where you put Martin Blake in the picture,” he added.

Mr MacNamara also filed a protected disclosure charge relating to the prosecution of a veterinarian in Bandon District Court on 7 October 2016, resulting in a fine of €15,000.

He said his client told Secretary Creed he had been contacted a week before the case by Pat Flanagan, chief inspector of the Special Intelligence Unit, because Martin Blake had “put an inquiry to him”.

“I polled Martin Blake’s interest in this case. Pat Flanagan informed me that Martin Blake received ‘a speech’ but he does not know by whom,” the attorney said, reading from the document.

Ms Hillery said she accepts that Mr Blake was named in the proprietary disclosure.

“I think with the serious allegations being made there, I think it’s important that they are not part of this process that we are hearing. I don’t have Mr. Blake here to answer because it’s not relevant. I accept that he is called that because he is the chief vet, but the matter should not go any further.”

“Okay, yes,” said the assessing officer. “Mr. MacNamara, I just need the nature of the complaint without going into too much detail.”

“I’m happy to take the complaint there, Mr. O’Driscoll,” said Mr. MacNamara. “I’ve been through everything I have to go through.”

Mr Reardon told the Commission that his new role will focus on exporting livestock and dogs and working on TB control regulations.

“[It’s] work I did 20 years ago,” he said. “After 20 years of learning new skills in an extremely important part of the department’s work, where I was told I was very good, I was just thrown in the dustbin.

“I have to say it was a very public humiliation,” he added. “Any sane person would think I did something wrong — something criminal or corrupt or something.”

He said the situation made him sick due to stress and absenteeism from work, and he missed his old job.

“It was satisfying work. You could make a difference and stop criminal behavior. It’s naïve to think that a person is a criminal only in the agricultural field,” he said.

Mr Reardon is due to be heard about his evidence when the case resumes for an in-person hearing after the court vacation in early June.

The exact date and place have yet to be determined by the Commission.

https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/whistleblower-accused-simon-coveney-and-enda-kenny-of-political-interference-in-criminal-probes-by-department-of-agriculture-into-farmers-and-pharmacists-41475847.html Whistleblowers have accused Simon Coveney and Enda Kenny of “political interference” in a Department of Agriculture criminal investigation into farmers and pharmacists

Fry Electronics Team

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