Queenan awaits sanction after enquiry findings

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Queenan awaits sanction after enquiry findings

What sanction if any awaits councillor Joe Queenan after he was found to have breached the Ethics in Public Office Act following an investigation after his appearance on an RTE television programme will be up to Sligo County Council.

The Standards in Public Office Commission’s findings against Enniscrone based Cllr Queenan follows its investigation hearing conducted on 10 September 2018.

The Commission found against Councillor Queenan in respect of three of the four alleged contraventions.

The Standards in Public Office Commission is an independent body responsible for overseeing the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, the Electoral Act 1997 (as amended), the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Activities) (Amendment) Act 2014, and the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015.

It has no power to impose any sanctions and it is now up to the County Council to consider taking action against Cllr Queenan.

The probe began after the commission received complaints from the council’s Chief Executive Ciaran Hayes and Cathaoirleach, Cllr Rosaleen O’Grady in April 2016.

The commission, chaired by Mr Justice Daniel OKeeffe used the civil standard of proof, satisifed on the balance of probabilities in coming to its conclusions.

It came about following a RTE Primetime Investigations Unit programme broadcast on December 7th 2015. The background to the complaint lay in certain contacts between Councillor Queenan and an undercover reporter who, using the alias of “Nina Carlsson”, purported to represent an investment company, “Vinst Opportunities”, which was interested in investing in the development of wind farms in County Sligo.

Councillor Queenan had three telephone calls and one meeting with the undercover reporter, all of which were secretly recorded. The reporter was not named and did not give evidence to the commission.

Councillor Queenan was first elected a member of Sligo County Council in June 1999 for Fianna Fáil and was successfully re-elected on three occasions, most recently in 2014.

He has served as Cathaoirleach and Leas-Cathaoirleach of Sligo County Council.

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Following the broadcast of the RTÉ Investigates programme, Councillor Queenan resigned from Fianna Fáil and he is currently an independent member of the council.

Councillor Queenan is a farmer, auctioneer and business person, with a number of retail premises and an agri-feed business.

The alleged contraventionsrelate to:failure to maintain proper standards of integrity, conductand concern for the public interest; seeking assurances of payment and indicating a willingness to provide assistance as a member of the local authorityin return for payment; failure to have regard to and be guided by the Code of Conduct for Councillors; failure to set out full particulars of declarable interests in the annual declaration furnished to Sligo County Council for the year 2014.

The first three alleged contraventiions related to Cllr Queenan’s contacts with the undercover reporter and the fourth allegation refer to the annual declaration submitted by him on February 8th 2015. Later, on November 20th 2015 and December 4th 2015 he submitted annual declarations for 2015 in revised form.

At the outset it was submitted on behalf of Cllr Queenan that the undercover reporter should not be allowed anonymity and that there was entrapment.

The commission ruled that there was no necessity for the undercover reporter to give evidence at the hearing. The matters in respect of which it is suggested that Councillor Queenan ought to be entitled to cross-examine the reporter relate to the journalistic methods employed by RTÉ, not the conduct of Councillor Queenan, and accordingly would fall outside the scope of the Commission’s functions under the Ethics Acts.

The investigation hearing was not deficient as a result of the identity of the undercover reporter not being disclosed, it ruled. The Commission was of the opinion that the unedited footage and audio recordings of the undercover reporter and Councillor Queenan is sufficient in order to assess his conduct.

The commission said it recognised that a plea of entrapment may in certain circumstances be a basis for applying to exclude evidence or to stay proceedings as an abuse of process. However, it was only in very rare and exceptional circumstances that such a plea could be raised where the alleged entrapment is by a non-state agent (such as a journalist) as opposed to a state agent(such as a police officer). The Commission was satisfied that neither the factual nor the legal requirements for a successful plea of entrapment were met in the circumstances of this case.

The Commission said it was entitled to accept as evidence the unedited audio recordings of the telephone calls between Councillor Queenan and the undercover reporter which took place on 20 October 2015 and 4 November 2015 and to the uneditedvideo footage of the meeting that took place between Councillor Queenan and the undercover reporter on 4 November 2015.

In the course of Councillor Queenan’s meeting with the undercover reporter on 4 November 2015, he engaged in a lengthy conversation about the potential development of wind farms in County Sligo.

He confirmed he was supportive of wind-farms, at least in non-sensitive areas, while noting the significant controversy and strong opposition to which the development of wind farms gives rise to in the local community. He suggested that the mountainous areas of the county were best placed for wind farm development and that the coast should be avoided.

When Councillor Queenan was asked if he would work with the potential investor on the process, he confirmed that he would do so and that it would “cost nothing” and that he was “not looking for anything out of it”, except acommitment of confidentiality. He indicated that he would do some lobbying behind the scenes with Sligo County Council for the potential investor, provided that this was realistic. He agreed to liaise with the potential investor’s experts. He again confirmed that he was not looking for money, stating that, if he was caught or seen to be doing so, he “would be out on my ear straight away”.

At this stage, Councillor Queenan continued: “But maybe down the road, because I am in business myself what I might have some business project coming up, you might be, some of your clients might be interested in investing with me in a project maybe you know something like that. I am just talking off the top of my head now, right.”

Councillor Queenan then proceeded to outline a potential investment opportunity relating to the development of an agri-feed business inEnniscrone, County Sligo. He confirmed that he would be looking for investment for his companies and stated: “that is where you, that way youcould help me. If it ever comes to it, right.” The Councillor followed this statement by repeating that he was not looking for anything, that he was not in the wind farm business himself, and that the potential investor should focus on its own project first.

In his evidence to the commission Cllr Queenan acknowledged his conduct was an error and fell short of his standards.

“Chairman I put up my hands. I did get into, I don’t know was it the chocolate biscuits or what it was but I diverted for a minute because Iseen this invest, I got the impression in me head that this, this woman with all this investment could also invest in other, other things rather than the wind farms. I diverted myself that way and I am sorry I shouldn’t have. It isn’t me form but I was caught and maybe it’s all the things that was going on in me mind at the time but I’ve hands up.”

Councillor Queenan said that he had gone to the meeting in good faith on the basis that he was meeting an individual with a serious interest in investing in Sligo and bringing jobs to the region.

However, he believed that he had been entrapped as the individual transpired to be an undercover reporter from RTÉ. Councillor Queenan said that he had been distracted anddiverted by the undercover reporter’s appearance and alleged flirtation.

At the same time, he said that he took pity on the undercover reporter because she appeared to be very weak on the detail of the meeting.

The Commission found that Councillor Queenan’s conduct in his meeting and telephone calls with the representative of the fictitious investment company interested in developing wind farms in County Sligo, amounted to a failure to maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest contrary to Section 168 of the Local Government Act.

The commission said there was no evidence to demonstrate that Cllr Queenan sought assurances of payment for his assistance.

The commission did find Councillor Queenan permitted his private and personal interests as a business person to come into conflict with his duties as a Councillor. In doing so, Councillor Queenan carried out his functions in a manner which was not based solely on the consideration of the public interest. This conduct was liable to erode, rather than enhance, public trust and confidence and to bring the integrity of the office and of the local authority into disrepute.

It also found that Cllr Queenan had submitted an inaccurate annual declaratiion of his interests in February 2015. It said the importance of an accurate declaration cannot be overemphasised in order to ensure transparency and maintain public trust.

Sligo Champion



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