Irish billionaire and ex-minister reeling after corruption inquiry

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The Independent Online

A former Irish government minister helped a billionaire businessman to win a highly lucrative mobile-phone licence, according to the report of a long-running corruption tribunal.

After fourteen years of work which cost millions of euros, the tribunal in Dublin, headed by Mr Justice Moriarty, concluded that the former minister Michael Lowry had "irregular interactions" before the government licence was awarded. The judge also said that a building deal in which Mr Lowry had been involved was "profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breathtaking".

The report drew vehement denials from those criticised, including Mr Lowry and Denis O'Brien, who was granted the licence. Since winning it in the 1990s, Mr O'Brien has become one of Ireland's biggest businessmen and one of the richest men in the world, with a global communications network.

In an almost unprecedentedly strong assault on the tribunal, Mr O'Brien accused the judge of making fundamental errors and said he himself should be investigated. Mr O'Brien, a major shareholder in the former parent company of The Independent, declared: "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."

In a similar vein, Mr Lowry charged: "This report is factually wrong and deliberately misleading. Moriarty has outrageously abused the tribunal's ability to form opinions which are not substantiated by evidence or fact."

The report is unlikely to have a major impact on the current Dublin government which was formed after the recent general election. Nonetheless, it will reinforce public perceptions of an unhealthy lack of openness in political and business dealings. Mr Lowry, 58, has just been re-elected as a TD – a deputy in the Dail, the Irish parliament – with a handsome majority in Tipperary North, where voters regard him as skilled at delivering benefits to his constituency.

He has sat as an independent member since 1997, though for 10 years before that he was a TD for Fine Gael, the party that heads the present coalition. He resigned as a minister and was dropped by the party after a previous inquiry found a major business figure had paid for extensive renovations to Mr Lowry's home.

The 2,000-page report said Mr Lowry, who in the mid-1990s was minister for communications, had assisted Mr O'Brien in acquiring the highly prized licence. It said it was beyond doubt that while the licence was under confidential consideration by civil servants, the minister gave the businessman "substantive information of significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence".

Mr Lowry had "irregular interactions with interested parties at its most sensitive stages", seeking and receiving information on the process and making known his preferences among candidates. The tribunal said the "most pervasive and abusive instance" of ministerial influence came when he refused a request from civil servants for more time because they were not convinced Mr O'Brien's company should receive the licence.

The tribunal also frowned on the fact that Mr Lowry had bypassed his cabinet colleagues in awarding the licence. It further found he had fuelled a groundless rumour within the government that one of the other bidders would give a "nest egg" to a supporter of the rival Fianna Fail party.

The tribunal described other dealings by Mr Lowry as "profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breathtaking". It found he had sought to secure unwarranted rent increases payable by a state concern to a major business figure.

In the run-up to the report's publication, Mr O'Brien has made detailed public attacks on the tribunal, which he describes as fundamentally flawed. The 52-year-old is ranked by Forbes magazine as the 254th richest man in the world, with a fortune of $4.2bn (£2.5bn), and his business empire reaches into Europe, the Caribbean and Central and South America. He is also known for his extensive charity contributions.

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