Gardaí have visited the offices of An Bord Pleanála (ABP) after starting an investigation into matters arising in the controversy over the planning authority’s former deputy chairman Paul Hyde.
Officers from the Economic Crimes Bureau have also asked to interview at least one ABP official in connection with the investigation but it is not clear whether any interview has taken place yet.
The opening of a formal Garda investigation comes one week after Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien sent a report on Mr Hyde by senior counsel Remy Farrell to Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. Mr O’Brien also sent the report to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The decision to conduct a formal investigation escalates Garda scrutiny of the case, moving it to the next level after an initial review of the Farrell report. The economic crime unit was formerly known as the bureau of fraud investigation.
A Garda spokesman declined to discuss the ABP case, saying the force “does not comment on the detail of investigations”. But a source familiar with the file said a formal investigation was now under way. There was no comment from Mr Hyde when asked about the investigation.
However, the planning appeals authority replied “yes and yes” when asked on Wednesday whether gardaí had visited its offices or sought to interview any ABP official. No other information was provided.
Mr Hyde resigned last month during the investigation for the Minster by Mr Farrell. Facing claims of impropriety and conflicts of interest, Mr Hyde has always denied any wronging.
The Garda move came as the planning regulator started a separate statutory review of ABP’s operations, sending two Scottish officials into the planning appeals body to examine the allocation of case files to board members.
The chief executive of the Office of Planning Regulator (OPR) Niall Cussen said this process took account of the “urgent need to progress measures aimed at restoring public confidence in An Bord Pleanála”.
The regulator’s reviewers have been given wide powers to talk directly with any employee or board member of ABP or “any other individual”. They must provide an initial draft report within one month, the aim being to complete a two-phase review by the end of November.
The review will be led by senior counsel Conleth Bradley, working with Paul Cackette, former head of the Scottish government’s legal directorate, and former chief planner to the Scottish government John McNairney.
Asked about the regulator’s process, ABP welcomed the clarity over is scope and timeline and promised to “assist and support” the review team.
ABP said it “will consider” review findings and recommendations “to reinforce and supplement the actions that the board has already taken and those arising from its own internal examination process”.
According to ABP, completion of the internal review is now “likely early September”. Last week Mr O’Brien said that report was imminent.
The regulator’s review comes amid political disquiet over the turmoil in An Bord Pleanála in the wake of the Hyde affair.
It emerged at the weekend that Mr O’Brien told ABP chairman Dave Walsh to cut off Mr Hyde’s phone and email three days before the deputy chairman stood aside temporarily from his post in May, without prejudice to Mr Farrell’s findings.
Mr Cussen’s office previously said “a range of wider concerns” had been raised in relation to the planning body, including patterns of decision-making and amendments to inspectors’ reports submitted to the planning board.
“The OPR has engaged with An Bord Pleanála officials, who will put in place appropriate arrangements at strategic operational and high management levels to support the timely production of both parts of the review in line with the stated timetable,” said the office on Wednesday.