A councillor who was secretly filmed asking to be paid through a business partner for promised work on behalf of wind farm investors “blurred the lines” between his public duties and his role as a businessman, his barrister has said.
The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) is investigating whether John O’Donnell, an Independent councillor with Donegal County Council since 2014, breached the code that governs local authority members.
The investigation is being conducted on foot of interviews carried out by an undercover reporter for an RTÉ Investigates programme broadcast in December 2015.
The Sipo hearing, which took place on Tuesday, was shown footage of a meeting in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, during which a woman who said her name was Nina Carlson told Mr O’Donnell she was from Iceland and was acting for a London-based investment company interested in possible wind farm ventures.
Ms Carlson was not the real name of the woman and her true identity was not revealed at the hearing.
In the clip of the interview with the reporter, Mr O’Donnell expressed strong support for the project, but stressed the need to “work very quietly” on it.
In terms of compensation, he said: “I don’t want to be seen … I’ll get paid through [a business partner]. For my protection he has to be involved. I can’t seen to be involved in this directly. But I’ll be working tirelessly at the coalface.”
In another exchange, he provided the reporter with a private email address and encouraged her to contact him that way rather than through his official Donegal County Council email.
Pointing out that she could be an undercover reporter, Mr O’Donnell then told her she could contact him via his mobile phone now that he had met her and become “comfortable” with her.
He has since claimed that he had been speaking in his capacity as a businessman and not as a local councillor. He declined to give evidence on Tuesday.
However, his barrister, Mark O’Connell, said Mr O’Donnell had been “negligent” but had not sought to enrich himself.
“My client was a businessman,” he said. “He was seeking to promote a commercial project in Donegal, which he believed in and thought was a good idea. Obviously the issue is that there are demarcation lines with his role as a councillor.
“I don’t believe its fair to say he was intentional or reckless in his disregard for that demarcation. I think his role as a businessman was probably mixed up with that as a councillor. I don’t think there’s a doubt about that.
“But I think his overall intention was to be as open as he could. The demarcations between his roles as a businessman and a politician were clearly blurred. I believe this was negligence and nothing more than that.
“Cllr O’Donnell did not seek money. He did not exact money, and he did not accept money.”
Mr O’Connell said his client had apologised for the “blurring of lines” on “several occasions” and had “paid a very high price for it”.
“As a result of this episode, financial institutions have withdrawn support from him, he’s gone through an insolvency process and suffered an ongoing campaign of abuse on social media, which has caused him huge distress,” he said.
Three councillors were featured in the RTÉ programme. Cllr Joe Queenan of Sligo County Council was before Sipo on Monday, while Cllr Hugh McElvaney of Monaghan County Council is due before the ethics watchdog on Monday.
Further submissions in relation to Mr O’Donnell will be made on October 5th.