A whistleblower has accused Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and former Taoiseach Enda Kenny of “political interference” to frustrate criminal investigations into farmers and pharmacists by the Department of Agriculture.
Former minister Richard Bruton, TDs from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the State’s chief veterinary officer, and a former president of the IFA have also been accused at a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) hearing this morning of lobbying to have investigations stopped.
Louis Reardon, a veterinary inspector with over 20 years’ service at the Department of Agriculture, has complained to the WRC that he was transferred out of a “prestigious” job with its special investigations unit because he made a protected disclosure accusing senior officials and politicians of “interfering” to block investigations.
The Department of Agriculture denies retaliating against the whistleblower in breach of the Protected Disclosures Act 2014.
At the outset, its legal team sought to have the details of the protected disclosure excluded from the evidence given at a public hearing this morning, arguing the documents had been submitted late and were not relevant to the claim.
Sarah-Jane Hillery BL, for the department, said the adjudicating officer “has no role in investigating the protected disclosure” and that she had “a very strong objection to having the documents heard”.
The adjudicating officer, Tom O’Driscoll, said he had jurisdiction to investigate the seriousness of a complaint and said he would accept all the documents submitted at the outset.
Darach MacNamara BL, for Mr Reardon, accepted that the commission would not make a determination on the truth of his client’s protected disclosure, but said he was entitled to put into evidence what those complaints were in order to establish their seriousness.
“It is a necessary proof in the case,” he said. “Ms Hillery is understandably trying not to have this document admitted because she doesn’t want this document heard in public. This is part of the justice of the matter. These sores need to be exposed,” he added, saying that he expected Ms Hillery to seek an order anonymising the decision.
Ms Hillery said the matter had been subject to “media coverage ad nauseum” and it would be “highly inappropriate” to ventilate it publicly – and went on to say the department had to protect the identity of the whistleblower.
Mr O’Driscoll said it was an absurdity to suggest the details of the protected disclosure were “common knowledge in the media” when the details were unknown to him.
“This case will proceed. I will not be anonymising it on the basis that it’s a matter of public interest,” he said.
Mr MacNamara said: “Mr Reardon’s case is that he was involuntarily transferred against his will – an embarrassing and humiliating development in an otherwise unblemished record in the civil service.”
Ms Hillery argued Mr Reardon’s transfer was wholly in line with recommendations made by a steering group examining the work of the special investigations unit where he worked.
“It was a time of change,” she said, arguing that Mr Reardon had failed to engage with his new duties following the transfer and said it “quite simply cannot be” that the protected disclosure made close to three years earlier was the cause of his transfer.
“When you’re investigating people who’ve been getting away with it for quite a while or my activities were going to have an economic or professional impact on them – they were not slow to make complaints,” Mr Reardon said.
He described on one occasion gaining entry into a farmhouse during an investigation into a pharmacist and a farmer who had previous convictions for using illegal hormones and seizing medicines found at the property.
Mr Reardon said the farmer wrote to him looking for the medicines back but was told they were being retained as evidence.
“He [the farmer] then proceeded to Paul Connaughton TD and he [the farmer] made a series of allegations against my colleague and myself. He said we were both ‘rude, mean, violent and aggressive to his paraplegic wife’ which quite simply was untrue,” Mr Reardon said.
“Mr Connaughton proceeded to write to Minister Coveney to repeat these allegations and also claimed that recordings were made and could be provided if necessary,” he said. “This was a complete untruth.”
He said the farmer’s wife, who was a wheelchair user, had invited them into the house and was accompanied throughout the search by her daughter-in-law - an off-duty garda.
Mr Reardon said he had become “increasingly frustrated” by “impediments being placed in the way of investigations” in the months leading up to his decision to make a protected disclosure in August 2017.
“Investigations themselves have to be honest…it can’t be a case of ‘don’t look at this guy’ or ‘don’t look at this issue’. You’ve to go where the evidence leads you,” he said. “Quite frankly, I felt the behaviour by senior management was just wrong.”
“Was this a clever thing for you to do?” Mr MacNamara BL asked his client.
“From a career perspective, absolutely not,” Mr Reardon said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Mr MacNamara then opened to the adjudication hearing the protected disclosure made my Mr Reardon to then-Agriculture Minister Michael Creed on August 2, 2017.
Mr Riordan detailed the first of eight matters raised in the document concerning a company called Animal Farmacy Ltd.
“There was sufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution. The investigation was snuffed out in its infancy before I could go to the actual pharmacy involved, where I felt there’d be a lot more evidence of wrongdoing,” he said.
“There was political interference here from the then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Richard Bruton, minister for enterprise, and Simon Coveney, the minister for agriculture at the time. They also elicited the assistance of John Bryan, who was the head of the IFA, [and] John McGuinness TD,” he said.
“There’s an email from the department’s head of legal services saying to Animal Farmacy there were very serious questions to ask, and the sooner we got this case into court the better – that the political fog would disappear,” he added.
“Despite that legal advice from the department’s own legal team the investigation was suspended,” Mr Reardon said.
He said he was investigated twice over “unsubstantiated” allegations made against him by the company, and a decision was ultimately made not to prosecute the firm.
Ms Hillery made an objection to the level of detail being given in evidence.
She said there were a number of people named “who aren’t here to answer” – adding that the adjudicating officer would not be making a finding of fact in relation to the allegations raised in the protected disclosure.
“I think it strays far beyond the issue being raised before you today,” she said. “It’s not relevant.”
Mr Reardon then said that he had omitted to mention the name of Martin Blake, the chief veterinary officer.
Mr MacNamara said he could “short-circuit matters” by skipping over some elements of the protected disclosure.
He said his client had told the minister that Mr Blake, “signed off on a deal with Animal Farmacy Ltd whereby they would not be prosecuted”, which Mr Reardon confirmed.
Mr MacNamara said Mr Reardon had also disclosed an allegation of “potential food fraud regarding Bord Bia’s quality assurance scheme” and that it was known he was going to make a statement to gardaí on May 20, 2014.
Mr Reardon confirmed he told the minister he had been called twice by his superior several days before that, who was “exhorting me not to make a statement to gardaí” and had “intimated he had been speaking to Martin Blake”.
He asked for this instruction in writing, but never got it, he told the court.
“On 15 and 16 May 2014 I received phone calls from Brian Flaherty, then my superintendent veterinary inspector, exhorting me to not to make a statement to gardaí. He intimated he had been speaking to Martin Blake but denied this had anything to do with his request,” Mr MacNamara said. “You’re putting Martin Blake in the frame there,” he added.
Mr MacNamara also opened an allegation from the protected disclosure concerning the prosecution of a vet at Bandon District Court on October 7, 2016, which led to a fine of €15,000.
He said his client told Minister Creed he had been contacted by Pat Flanagan, the senior inspector in charge of the special investigations unit, a week before the case because Martin Blake had “made an inquiry of him”.
“I queried Martin Blake’s interest in this case. Pat Flanagan informed me Martin Blake had received ‘an approach’ but he didn’t know from whom,” counsel said, reading from the document.
Ms Hillery said she accepted that Mr Blake was named in the protected disclosure.
“I think with the serious allegations that are being put out there I just think that it’s important that they don’t form part of this proceeding that we’re hearing. I don’t have Mr Blake here to answer because it’s not relevant. I accept that he’s named because he’s the chief veterinary surgeon but matters shouldn’t go any further.”
“Okay, yeah,” said the adjudicating officer. “Mr MacNamara I just need the nature of the complaint without going into too much detail on it.”
“I’m happy to leave the complaint there, Mr O’Driscoll,” Mr MacNamara said. “I’ve gone through everything I need to go through.”
Mr Reardon told the commission that in his new role he deals chiefly with the exports of livestock, dogs and working on the TB control regulations.
“[It’s] work that I had done 20 years previously,” he said. “I was after spending 20 years acquiring a new skillset in an extremely important part of the department’s work, one that I was told I was very good at, and then I was just thrown in the dustbin.
“I have to say, it was a very public humiliation,” he added. “Any rational person would think I’d done something wrong – something criminal or corrupt or something like that.”
He said the situation had caused him stress-related illness and led to absences from work, and that he missed his old job.
“It was satisfying work. You could make a difference and stop criminal behaviour. It is naive to believe that a person is a criminal in the agricultural sphere only,” he said.
Mr Reardon is set to be cross-examined on his evidence when the case resumes for an in-person hearing after the court vacation in early June.
The exact date and venue have yet to be set by the Commission.