By SHAWN POGATCHNIK, Associated Press
DUBLIN (AP) — Former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern received at least €209,779 ($276,000) in secret payments while in office and repeatedly lied about this under oath, a mammoth fact-finding judicial investigation ruled Thursday in a long-awaited verdict.
The three judges led by Justice Alan Mahon stopped short of finding Ahern guilty of corruption, because they couldn't prove that Ahern gave favors to any of his cash donors when he was finance minister in the 1990s.
The judges did find two other former lawmakers in Ahern's Fianna Fail party, including former Cabinet minister and European Union commissioner Padraig Flynn, guilty of corruption for soliciting payments from property developers for personal use. They also found 11 past and present 11 members of local councils guilty of the same offense.
While the report itself was a fact-gathering effort and not a direct finding of any criminal wrongdoing, Prime Minister Enda Kenny referred its contents to state prosecutors, the national police force, tax collection authorities and the Standards in Public Office Commission. Potential offenses include corruption, obstruction of justice and tax evasion.
The report "clearly sets out corrupt practices among a number of politicians," said Kenny, who declined to say whether he considered Ahern among them.
Kenny said Ahern had stained the integrity of his office by making "a litany of unacceptable statements" to the judges.
Ahern, whose often bizarre and implausible 2007 testimony enraptured the nation, denied doing anything wrong, but resigned from office in 2008 after 11 years in power. He issued a lengthy rebuttal Thursday night accusing the judges of unfairness and vowing to clear his name.
"I am disappointed that the tribunal has said that I failed to give a truthful account," Ahern said. "... I never took a bribe or corrupt payment. I never made a political decision in return for a payment. I hid nothing."
Yet even his own party, whose name means "soldiers of destiny" in Gaelic, failed to believe him.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin announced after a late-night meeting of party lawmakers that he intended to expel Ahern from party membership. The decision was expected to become official March 30.
"The receipt by a senior office holder of large amounts of money which a sworn tribunal has held is of unclear origins, and the failure to give any credible explanation, requires an unequivocal response," said Martin, who served in three Cabinet posts in Ahern-led governments.
He said Ahern's receipt of surreptitious funds, and his delivery of false testimony, "betrayed the trust placed in him by this country and this party."
No Irish politicians have been convicted of corruption as a result of investigations into the bribery culture at the heart of Irish property development. Prosecutions are hampered, in part, by the fact that the government passed no credible anti-bribery laws until 1996, leaving tax evasion as the only readily proven offense.
Ahern's longtime accountant and friend, Des Peelo, conceded that Ahern's testimony had been hard to swallow, but said the judges couldn't prove Ahern was lying.
"The fact that something is bizarre does not make it untrue. Some aspects of his finances were bizarre," Peelo said.
Ahern's former special adviser in government, Gerry Howlin, described the findings as "far worse than anything I expected or believed possible."
"He told me he was telling the truth," Howlin said. "His narrative is not believed, and it is damning and it is serious. ... His reputation has been very seriously damaged."
Voters last year ousted Fianna Fail from power and devastated its parliamentary ranks, a historic defeat driven by Ireland's humiliating negotiation of an international bailout. Ahern, 60, did not seek re-election.
Interest in the judges' final 3,211-page report — the climax of a 15-year investigation expected to cost taxpayers more than €200 million ($260 million) — was so great that the investigators' Web site repeatedly crashed. The probe, which has published four previous reports on other scandals, has collected 60,000 pages of testimony from approximately 600 witnesses.