Belfast Telegraph

Ex-watchdog rapped by Anglo judge

The former financial watchdog in Ireland has been singled out for damning criticism by a judge for leading two bankers into an illegal loans-for-shares scam at the now defunct Anglo Irish Bank.

Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer were spared jail and walked from court today over the rogue 450 million euro (£370m) deal to unravel a secret stock trade that regulators feared threatened Ireland's entire bank system.

On the back of a landmark trial of boom-to-bust Ireland, Judge Martin Nolan told the two ex-bankers it would be unjust to imprison them over the July 2008 plot.

He said they were guilty of a blatant crime but acted with the knowledge of the watchdog - headed at the time by Patrick Neary - which failed to throw up any red warning lights or simply chose to ignore illegal lending.

"It seems to me it would be most unjust to imprison these two gentlemen when it seems to me a state agency has led them into error and illegality," he said.

Judge Nolan said he believed the regulator's office was more concerned with saving Anglo or the wider banking system in Ireland than with the law.

Whelan, 52, and a father-of-two, of Malahide, Co Dublin, and McAteer, 63, and also a father-of-two, of Rathgar, Dublin, declined to comment outside the Phoenix Park courts complex after they were told they will be assessed for community service.

Both men showed little emotion when the judge gave his 18 minute ruling.

It included a damning assessment of the regulator's failure to stop the deal to unravel a doomed 2.4 billion euro (£1.97bn) gamble on Anglo's shares - 28% of its total stock - by former billionaire industrialist Sean Quinn.

Judge Nolan praised Con Horan, a senior figure in the regulator who had frequent dealings with former Anglo chief executive David Drumm over the unwind, saying his evidence was candid and that he felt he was doing a duty for the state at the time.

But he warned: "I find it incredible that red lights did not go off some place in the regulator's office and the appropriate legal advice was not sought.

"It seems to me that Con Horan and Pat Neary were more anxious to solve the problem than comply with the law.

"It think the regulator felt their overarching purpose was to save this bank and save the financial system."

Judge Nolan added: "And by taking no action they gave a green light for the purpose of buying shares."

On Mr Neary's evidence, he said: "Pat Neary seems to have limited recall.

"He seems to have difficulty in recalling vital events but it seems he knew of the general situation and I've no doubt portrayed to David Drumm his anxieties about the situation and his hope the Quinn situation would be resolved."

The sentencing brings to a close the first prosecution in Ireland of a director under section 60 of the Companies Act.

It also wraps up the hugely anticipated 11 week trial of bankers - the first of any one from the financial services industry following Anglo's crash and a crippling 30 billion euro (£24.6bn) bailout.

Whelan and McAteer will be back before Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on July 31 where they will be told whether they are suitable for community service.

They were also found not guilty of illegally lending money to five members of the Quinn family as part of the same Project Maple deal.

They will be disqualified from acting as a company director for five years as a result of their convictions.

Some of Judge Nolan's harshest criticism was directed at the regulator's office and its attitude and behaviour, which he said complicated sentencing.

"The regulator did not realise there was a breach... or chose to ignore it," he said.

"I can't say what was the case but I'm going to give the regulator the benefit of the doubt."

Judge Nolan said the crime was blatant and not a victimless one as it would have affected anyone trading in Anglo shares.

But he said Whelan and McAteer had no venal motive in the loans-for-shares scam.

"The motive was not avarice or greed," he said.

"It seems to me it was a misguided attempt to save their bank but nonetheless it was a breach of law."

Judge Nolan said he was surprised the regulator did not get legal advice on the deal or consult with other state bodies in March when the unwind was first mooted by the bank.

Whelan and McAteer were supported in the court by family members.

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