NY Times
March 22, 2012

DUBLIN — After 15 years of hearings, a tribunal in Ireland concluded that “corruption affected every level of Irish political life” and that a former prime minister, Bertie Ahern, had failed to tell the truth about more than $275,000 he received while in office. But the tribunal said it could not conclude that Mr. Ahern had taken bribes.

The investigative body, known formally as the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments and informally as the Mahon Tribunal, investigated allegations that politicians sought bribes from property developers in return for favorable decisions on land rezoning in and around Dublin during the 1980s and 1990s. The tribunal delivered its final report on Tuesday.

Beyond what it has to say about Mr. Ahern, the 3,270-page report paints a damning picture of Ireland’s political culture, and has sent ripples of consternation through Irish society. The parliament is scheduled to devote three days next week to discussing the report, and the government will forward it to the police to be reviewed for possible criminal prosecutions.

The report took Mr. Ahern to task over his testimony concerning deposits made into his bank accounts while he was in office, saying that “much of the explanation provided by Mr. Ahern as to the source of the substantial funds identified and inquired into in the course of the tribunal’s public hearings was deemed by the tribunal to be untrue.” His testimony, given in 2007 when he was prime minister, met with widespread public skepticism, leading to his resignation both from office and from the leadership of the Fianna Fail party the following year.

Mr. Ahern has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The tribunal said it could not determine where the money, deposited into Mr Ahern’s accounts in Irish pounds, British pounds and American dollars, had come from. But it did not believe his various explanations that the sums were gifts from friends, winnings from betting on horse races, and back wages from his tenure as finance minister that were delayed because at the time he did not have a bank account.

In contrast, the tribunal did accept testimony by Tom Gilmartin, a property developer, who told the tribunal that a former business partner, Owen O’Callaghan, had informed him of corrupt payments to Mr. Ahern in exchange for permit approvals for a Dublin shopping mall. The report also found that a Fianna Fail colleague, Padraig Flynn, had “wrongly and corruptly” sought a donation from Mr. Gilmartin and diverted the money from party coffers to buy a farm. Another prominent Fianna Fail politician, Liam Lawlor, also accepted “inappropriate and corrupt payments” and was “hopelessly compromised,” the report said.

The tribunal, set up in 1997, held more than 1,200 days of public hearings and heard testimony from some 600 witnesses. It was prompted by a newspaper advertisement placed by two private citizens, offering a reward for “information leading to the conviction on indictment of a person or persons for offences relating to land rezoning in the Republic of Ireland,” and a whistleblower who responded with credible evidence. The tribunal persisted in its work despite what the report called sustained attacks by senior politicians on the its integrity and on its members.

Mr. Ahern, once the most popular politician in Ireland, won plaudits for advancing the peace process in Northern Ireland and helping to broker the 1998 Good Friday agreement that largely ended political violence there. But the corruption investigation left his reputation in tatters, and he now faces expulsion from the party he led to three general-election victories. Fianna Fail suffered sharp losses in 2011 but remains the largest opposition party in parliament. Responding to the report on national radio, Dara Calleary, the party’s spokesman on justice issues, described the findings in the report as “stomach-churning.” “I am angry that public trust has been so obviously abused,” he said.