Monaghan Councillor Hugh McElvaney has been found to have breached the ethics laws by intentionally seeking payment from a company he believed was going to fund a planning application for a wind farm.
The Standards in Public Office Commission also found that he failed to uphold the Code of Conduct for councillors during his interactions with, what turned out to be, a fictitious company and that he had acted negligently when he failed to fully disclose his interests.
The Commission issued its ruling today following an investigation triggered by Mr McElvaney’s meetings with an undercover journalist working for RTÉ Investigates. She had posed as a representative of a fictitious wind farm investment company.
“The Commission finds that Councillor McElvaney conflated his roles as councillor and businessman and used his position as councillor in order to promote his private interests by agreeing to provide information and assistance to the fictitious investment company in respect of the planning process in return for a financial reward,” the Commission said
The Commission found that the former Fine Gael member, who was re-elected to the council as an Independent member in May 2019, had been the one to look for payment and he was not the victim of entrapment.
It said RTÉ Investigates had merely presented Mr McElvaney with an “unexceptional opportunity” which he sought payment for during an early introductory phone call.
“The Commission finds that it is of significance that, even in the course of the telephone conversation, it was Councillor McElvaney who initiated the discussion of the financial terms of any engagement he might undertake with the investment company.
“Later, in the course of the meeting (with the undercover reporter) … Councillor McElvaney confirmed that he would not only assist with the identification of sites and be a liaison with the local community but he would also operate on behalf of the company in the council itself”, it said in its ruling.
The Commission said his conduct was likely to negatively affect how the public viewed councillors and Monaghan County Council.
“The Commission is of the opinion that Councillor McElvaney behaved 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. In these circumstances, Councillor McElvaney failed to observe the highest ethical standards in the performance of his role.”
Mr McElvaney had already lost a High Court challenge to the Commission’s proceedings, where he argued the hearing could not proceed without the identity of the undercover reporter being revealed. This was rejected by the High Court and the judgment allowed the Commission to hold a public hearing in December 2019.
The Commission also rejected the suggestion, put forward on behalf of Mr McElvaney, that he was “playing along” with RTÉ and had not taken the interaction with the fictitious company seriously.
Footage of Mr McElvaney’s interaction with the undercover reporter, in which he suggested he would require “loads of money” if he successfully assisted the wind farm project, was first broadcast by RTÉ in a December 2015 documentary.
The Commission said it was difficult to uncover evidence of this type of activity without the use of undercover operations.
“The Commission is satisfied that, in engaging in this operation, RTÉ has not engaged in any gross misconduct which would render it an abuse of process for the Commission to rely on the evidence of the undercover operations,” it said.
In relation to the events caught on camera Mr McElvaney was found to have breached the ethics laws in three ways and in all cases his behaviour was intentional – the most serious of the assessments the Commission could make.
He was also found to have acted negligently when he failed to fully disclose his property and business interests in the declaration of interests he filed in 2015.
This is the third report the Commission has delivered arising from the RTÉ Investigates programme. Last year it found that independent councillors John O’Donnell (Donegal) and Joe Queenan (Sligo) had breached the ethics acts during their meetings with the same undercover reporter.
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