A FORMER director of environmental services at Wicklow County Council removed a signed waste permit worth €400,000 from a council file, replaced it with an unsigned version and shredded the original, according to papers released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
The FOI documents, released by the Department of Environment after a 16-month discussion with Information Commissioner Emily OReilly, also reveal the then director of environmental services, now director of housing services Michael Nicholson, subsequently denied on a number of occasions that the waste permit had ever been signed or issued.
The existence of the original permit only came to light after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said a copy of the permit, dated January 17th, 2003, and signed by Mr Nicholson, had been issued to it and had been retained in its files.
Wicklow County Council subsequently apologised for giving false information to solicitors for the landowner, and a new waste permit was signed by Mr Nicholson on May 15th, 2003. It was backdated to January 17th on the advice of the council’s law agent.
The waste permit related to the creation of a “borrow” pit on land belonging to the Byrne family of Ballybeg, near Rathnew. A road-building consortium had agreed with the Byrnes to use a site on the Byrne family lands as a borrow pit, first for the extraction of soil and later for infill, as part of the construction of the Ashford-Rathnew bypass.
The deal was worth about €400,000 in payments to the Byrnes, but was dependent on Wicklow County Council granting a waste permit.
The FOI documents, released to Independent councillor Tommy Cullen, include copies of correspondence from Wicklow County Council to councillors, the landowners and the landowners’ solicitors on the issue, as well as a draft report on the issue by the Local Government Audit Service (LGAS).
The main LGAS report could not be found. But the Information Commissioner ruled the draft report should be released, noting it appeared to be “a largely factual statement of events” and that the “the main LGAS file has apparently disappeared without explanation”.
The draft report records Mr Nicholson personally signed the waste permit on Friday, January 17th, 2003. But on the following Monday, January 20th, he instructed the signed copy be taken from the file and replaced with an unsigned permit. The signed permit was shredded and a copy which was being sent to the applicant was withdrawn from the post.
Letters released under the FOI Act show Mr Nicholson’s department wrote to solicitors for the landowners on March 10th, 2003, stating “your clients visited our office last week and the full file in the case was made available to them”. The letter continued that, from the file, it could be seen that the waste permit “has not been signed yet”.
The draft report notes Mr Nicholson’s contention that he had acted to save the council money, as payments from the contractor to the landowner could add to the final roads bill which the council would pay the contractor.
A letter from the LGAS director of audit Noel OConnell reported to then minister for the environment Dick Roche that “an administrative error occurred within the council”. However, Mr O’Connell said the error had “no wider implications for the overall quality of the councils systems and procedures in the area of waste permitting”.
In a statement to The Irish Times, Mr Nicholson, on behalf of the council, said: “This matter was the subject of an investigation by the director of audit of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government and in his report in December 2005 he stated that the overall system for issuing waste permits in Wicklow County Council was properly carried out.”
But Mr Cullen called on the LGAS to say how it arrived at its conclusion that “an administrative error” had occurred in relation to the granting of the waste permit. The documents offered no explanation as to how this conclusion was arrived at, he said.