Former INM Chairman Leslie Buckley has rejected claims by two court-appointed inspectors that his application to have them withdrawn from investigating certain matters at INM is “self-serving”.
Mr Buckley also denies claims by former INM CEO Robert Pitt of “nitpicking” Mr Pitt’s evidence to the inspectors and that his application is an “orchestrated attempt” to damage Mr Pitt’s reputation for honesty and propriety, Sean Guerin SC said.
Mr Buckley’s concern is that a draft statement of evidence prepared by the inspectors indicates objective bias on their part against Mr Buckley, counsel said.
The withdrawal application was brought at an appropriate time because the inspectors are about to permit a cross-examination process and “on the cusp of beginning a quasi-judicial task”.
Among Mr Buckley’s concerns is the draft statement “grossly misrepresented” the position adopted by Mr Buckley, when INM Chairman, towards Denis O’Brien, a former major shareholder in INM, counsel said. Mr Buckley strongly denies he ever preferred the interests of Mr O’Brien over other shareholders, counsel said.
Wednesday was the second day of the hearing before Mr Justice Garrett Simons of Mr Buckley’s application for orders to have the inspectors withdrawn or directing they recuse themselves from the investigation.
Mr Buckley claims the inspectors’ presentation of evidence exhibits a “pattern of error” in a way “unfairly adverse” to him and “unfairly favourable” to his “accusers”, especially Mr Pitt.
Inspectors Seán Gillane and Richard Fleck strongly deny objective bias and say the application is fundamentally misconceived for reasons including they are still gathering information, cross-examination has yet to be undertaken and they have made no findings.
The inspectors were appointed by the High Court in September 2018 on the application of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) following the latter’s year long investigation into matters raised in protected disclosures made in 2016 and 2017 by Mr Pitt and former INM Chief Financial Officer Mr Preston.
The ODCE raised concerns about issues including an alleged data breach at INM in 2014, involving data being exported from the jurisdiction and interrogated by third parties in what Mr Buckley, who stepped down as INM Chairman in March 2018, has said was a cost-cutting exercise called Operation Quantum.
Mr Buckley’s application was initiated after the inspectors circulated documents collectively referred to as the ‘draft statement‘. That comprises five draft statements, entitled ‘Relevant facts and evidence’, in five modules – INM’s sale of its shareholding in APN News and Media Ltd; the Data Interrogation; the proposed acquisition of Newstalk Ltd; INM’s handling of the protected disclosures and communications between Mr Buckley and Denis O’Brien.
Mr Buckley accepts the draft statement is an early draft circulated to him and other parties for the purpose of inviting comment with a view to amendment but claims the inclusion of some material, and exclusion of other material, shows objective bias on the inspectors’ part.
Among various claims, Mr Buckley alleges objective bias concerning how the inspectors have presented evidence from Mr Pitt and himself concerning discussions on whether a payment should be made to Island Capital, a company of Mr O’Brien, arising from the APN transaction.
Documents put before the court include short excerpts from transcripts of interviews between the inspectors and various people, including Mr Pitt.
In one excerpt, Mr Pitt refers to how he felt about raising issues with some senior people in INM about any payment to Island Capital concerning the APN transaction.
He said: “I worked in Lidl and Lidl is a tough, tough company. I had people throw things at me in Lidl across the table. But I never felt afraid, it was emotion. I think in INM, this is a very subjective thing we are discussing, I got the impression that people were afraid, they were nervous… ”
Mr Pitt said this was around the time his probationary period as INM CEO was extended. While he was uncertain about his future in INM, he liked his job and there were “good people around”.
“It wasn’t hell you know,” he said.
The hearing continues on Thursday.