Exclusive interview with Criminal Assets Bureau boss Superintendent Felix McKenna
John Burke Crime Correspondent
CRIMINAL assets bureau boss Felix McKenna draws a circle on a blank A4 page on his desk. In the circle's centre, he marks one dot with his pen, to represent the infamous Dublin criminal Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch. Around the circumference of the circle, McKenna marks five other dots which stand for the Monk's criminal lieutenants.
It is almost a decade since CAB brought Hutch to the high court to obtain money he had made as a prolific armed robber . . . the agency's first major case. Chief superintendent McKenna explains how CAB injected such fear into the minds of criminals that Hutch and his cohorts were forced to sell large portfolios of property to cover the bureau's demands. "We raised assessments against Gerry Hutch. He contested some of these at first. . .
when he saw we'd be moving to sell his house in Clontarf, he saw the writing on the wall. He sat down with his advisers and brokered a deal whereby the state benefited by around 1.5m, " McKenna recalls. It was a turning point in the war against criminals and their illicit profits.
"The knock-on effect of what Hutch did was that the inner core of four or five key individuals in his immediate gang did not go into any litigation against us; they coughed up monies straight away, " the CAB chief says. The agency has pursued the most profitable crimelords in the years since.
CAB came into life in the aftermath of the murder of crime reporter Veronica Guerin, which occurred on 26 June 1996 . . . 10 years ago tomorrow.
The bureau's success in tracing and seizing the assets of crime bosses has been the most fitting and effective memorial to her legacy.
The special unit was set up as a statutory agency under the Criminal Assets Bureau Act 1996, passed into law on 15 October of that year. The mechanism the bureau has used under that legislation has seen CAB squeeze over 90m from the pockets of organised criminals from its inception up to the present day, McKenna reveals.
The top garda says that a "fundamental change" occurred back in 1996, with CAB's creation. "Prior to that we were living in an era where criminals committed crime and gardai and customs did their best to investigate but the godfathers of crime escaped. Their own gang members were fearful . . . which was passed on to the ordinary person on the street. There was a reluctance by persons to come forward and give evidence in major investigations." Up to this, the culture was one of securing criminal convictions. But CAB took another route. The agency tackled the profits of the big drug dealers and armed robbers using civil law.
To secure a conviction for a criminal act, the state must prove the accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But in civil law the burden of proof is much lower. "It is a matter of probabilities. We satisfy the court that a certain dwelling house was bought using the proceeds of organised crime and the onus of proof shifts onto the defendant to say otherwise, " McKenna explains.
The agency's success is measured in the names of the gangsters whose criminal empires have been pillaged over the years. CAB seized assets belonging to major Dublin crime figure Brian Meehan, the man found guilty of Veronica Guerin's murder. In 2004, Limerick criminal Brian Collopy handed over a house worth 300,000 after admitting it was bought using the profits of crime.
CAB successfully sought 2m in unpaid tax and interest from alleged drug dealer Corkman Patrick A McSweeney that same year. In 2002, the bureau seized property belonging to Englishman Mickey Greene, once believed to be the UK's largest cocaine supplier. CAB sold his former country estate near Kilcock, Co Kildare for 1m. Former Real IRA director Liam Campbell was hit with a 820,000 tax demand.
While the money collected has been massive, CAB must wait a period of seven years to sell criminals' assets. As the monies gathered from the initial cases concluded up to 1999 begin to transfer to the state coffers, the taxpayer has benefited to the tune of 4.5m up to the present day, McKenna reveals. That figure is expected to snowball over the coming years.
McKenna has been instrumental in most of the state's major anti-crime probes in the past two decades. A member of the garda 'Tango Squad' that targeted Martin 'The General' Cahill in the 1990s, he oversaw the sale of the murdered Cahill's Cowper Downs home in south Dublin last year for almost 1m. A former member of the serious crime squad, McKenna, a native of Monaghan town, was appointed deputy head of CAB under Fachtna Murphy when the agency was established in 1996. He was made head of the garda bureau of fraud investigation in May 1999, later returning to head CAB.
But crime bosses have learned to adapt to the major pressure CAB brought to bear on their Irish-based property portfolios and assets. The central core of "really big players" in the drugs trade have moved their money abroad . . . to some of the most unexpected locations. "The main players have moved to Spain, and further afield. These are the ones doing the big deals. We have traced money, enormous amounts of money, that has gone to Saudi Arabia, " McKenna reveals. "Millions have gone into bank accounts in Dubai, from the guys in the top tier. They're bringing millions and millions over. One of the individuals, an individual from Limerick that we are investigating, left this jurisdiction with 12m. We traced 8m to 9m of that money he diverted to Saudi Arabia. Nearly all the cases involving the fellas at the pinnacle who are generating huge profits have transferred nearly all their money to Dubai.
"In Dubai, there's a financial services sector being built with huge opportunities for investing money . . . huge. The anti-money-laundering regime out there is not developed. There's parts of the world where money-laundering legislation is not even known about. In some other cases, they have moved lots of money to South Africa. They'd put it into a business, to try to legitimise it."
The practical measures that the big players use to conceal their ill-gotten wealth is complex and intricate. "They'll engage an ex-fraud man who they'll regard as their banker, a person who will understand the structures. . . you buy a company and then you buy a variety of other companies. You then create a single company as a secretarial company for all of the others. Through all these you create a series of bank accounts all over the place and then you start buying property in those company names. And it's like trying to get through a spider's web . . . because they will not use Ireland as the company registration office, they will use Guernsey or Jersey, the UK or Cayman Islands, or elsewhere, to register these companies, " says McKenna.
CAB has also identified a major trend in the way medium-level drug dealers, in their 20s and early 30s, are attempting to conceal their Irish-based assets. "Younger guys who have generated money from drug trafficking and who have so far beaten the punch on criminal prosecutions are putting their property portfolios in the name of a sibling or relative. Invariably we discover people who are on lone-parent allowance or social welfare but who will have property portfolios of three to four mortgages. But it is totally under the control of the criminal, " he says. Under new money-laundering legislation, banks and financial agencies must now forward suspicious transaction reports (STRs) to gardai. "Ten years ago, we got barely 1,000 STRs in a year. Last year, 2005, the moneylaundering investigation unit received 10,735.
That's a huge intelligence database for us."
Drug dealers also need cash. "Drugs is a cash business. If you buy drugs in the south of Spain or Morocco, you need cash, you can't bring your chequebook. They're transporting big sums of cash out in the cab of a lorry or in a spare wheel of a car, hidden inside the tyre in a vacuum-packed bag. But the big guys don't bring it themselves."
McKenna says the garda drugs unit has done much to dent the finances of illegal drug importers.
"A big seizure can put them back 1.5m. That could be 10 guys who put that money together. They all lose something and seizures by the drug squad and customs are increasing."
But the CAB boss is all too aware that the boom in the cocaine market is a major issue. "I live in the real world. I hear from my own children that the amount of drugs that are available in places is unreal. My daughters and sons tell me the amount of drugs that'd be offered to them when they're out around the city is unreal."
Massive cocaine use among young men in the criminal underworld has a fatal result, he notes.
"These guys [younger criminals] have no inhibitions in shooting each other. They're thugs and villains." McKenna says his peers among the senior ranks of the force involved in the investigation of homicide believe that the use of cocaine by young and lethally armed criminals is a key driving force in rising murder rates in gangland. "They attribute it to the use of cocaine by these people, the shooters. . . I've asked my counterpart in the drugs squad, and other senior officers, what is driving these fellas to do these killings and they've said it's cocaine."
McKenna's comment is the first time that a senior officer in the force has directly linked the dramatic rise in gangland-style murders to the consumption of cocaine by young criminals.
The CAB chief also imparts a strong opinion on the behaviour of middle-class recreational drug users . . . "they've gone with the wind, they have no sense of civic morals at all".
CAB is also now heavily involved in investigating cross-border smuggling of oil and cigarettes . . .
working with the North's assets recovery agency (ARA) . . . as well as a major probe into investments by subversives in the Republic's hotel and pub industries arising out of the Northern Bank raid.
McKenna insists that CAB's team of skilled tax inspectors, financial analysts, detectives, administrators, legal support and their dedicated lawyers from the state solicitor's office, are ready to strike further into the heart of criminal profiteering.
The bureau liaises with international police units via the Camden Assets Recovery Interagency Network (CARIN) . . . stretching across EU states, the US and further afield, exchanging intelligence on the tracing and seizing of assets. "Organised crime bosses nowadays live in a borderless world, " says McKenna. "They can move about by plane and whatever and they can move their assets abroad."
CAB will not be short of work in the coming decade, as evidenced by just one large room in the agency's Harcourt Square, Dublin complex, filled with dozens of cardboard file-boxes containing hundreds of thousands of documents . . . all related to
June 25, 2006