The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) hearing into the allegations against the chief executive of Wexford County Council heard a claim he used his position to threaten to withdraw sponsorship and advertising funding from South East Radio on what would be considered biased coverage on a current affairs show.
Enright’s attorney, Conor Power SC refuted that claim on Friday, saying the dispute with the station was a direct result of edited interviews that aired on the show in August 2019.
Sipo is investigating allegations that Mr. Enright violated the 2001 Local Government Act and Employee Code of Conduct. Introducing the case, Brian Gageby SC said there was an email chain which shows Mr Enright threatened to take the ad off South East Radio because of a lawsuit via Sipo by a contributor to the station was going against him.
He said a complaint was received by Sipo on October 9, 2019, from Karl Fitzpatrick, host of the station’s Business Matters show, alleging the threat to remove the ad in retaliation for the council’s negative coverage and a threat uttered by Mr. Fitzpatrick in June of that year to complain about Mr. Enright to Sipo.
Mr Gageby said the tone and language of Mr Enright’s emails to the management of South East Radio were important, adding that there was a clear threat that the business relationship between the council and the radio station cease.
He said Mr. Enright’s complaint concerned the contributions of businessman and broadcaster Mr. Fitzpatrick to the Morning Mix breakfast show on March 5, 2019, which claimed Mr. Fitzpatrick’s comments regarding the inability to attract many IDA visits to the county were biased, unprofessional and unfair. .
Mr Gageby said Mr Enright wrote to management in August 2019 to tell them that Wexford County Council is reviewing its business relationship with the station, citing a significant amount of money the council has spent on advertising with the station.
An email from the station’s management expressed surprise, believing the disputed issue had been resolved earlier that year.
Mr Enright then asked how management could believe the case was resolved when he was threatened with legal action in a Sipo case. He wrote that it was with regret that the business arrangement that existed between the parties had to end because his patience was running out.
Mr Gageby said that as an employee of a local authority Mr Enright allegedly failed to maintain proper standards or integrity in his email at the station. He said Mr Enright pressured the station to change its broadcasting procedures by threatening to withdraw funding, which brought the integrity of its position into disrepute.
Mr Enright had further broken a section of the code of conduct law by failing to show public courtesy in a fair and expeditious manner, he said.
Mr Power said the case should have been referred to the local ethics registrar before being promptly referred to Sipo.
He argued that there was no evidence that a decision was made on the basis of the legal test that the case before Sipo was of significant public importance.
Mr Power said what existed between the parties was ultimately a business relationship.
“It was a dispute in the context of a commercial relationship. This involved a user of the South East Radio service who brought South East Radio to the attention of breaches of its obligations under the Broadcasting Act and South East Radio’s Code of Practice dealing with issues such as presenters not giving their own points of view.
He said the dispute revolved around issues of bias and general fairness, adding that the council was under no obligation to run ads with the station. He said he would collect advertising worth € 160,000 from South East Radio over an 18-month period.
“Mr. Enright was dealing with a business partner. It’s hard to see how that engaged the public.”
Mr Power said radio station owner Eamonn Buttle contacted Mr Enright about his concerns on September 2, 2019, suggesting the matter should be investigated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland ( BAI) and an independent arbitrator.
“This was accepted by Mr. Enright on September 3. Thereafter, the business relationship continued as normal. The BAI was approached but it did not work out.”
Mr Power said he was very concerned to hear Mr Gageby say his client had retaliated against Mr Fitzpatrick, adding that this implied Mr Enright was acting in his own best interests by trying to change the practices of broadcast from the station.
He said a letter was sent to Mr Enright making very dangerous allegations that had remained unresolved for months in the summer of 2019, adding that there was no evidence of a personal dispute and that the problem was with the emissions.
The hearing lasted as the reports broadcast on the radio station on March 5, March 6 and March 7 and the other reports on August 17 and 24 were at the heart of the dispute.
Following Mr. Power’s legal challenges before lunch, Sipo Chairman Justice Garrett Sheehan returned after an hour of deliberation with his fellow Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy; Ombudsman Peter Tyndall; Clerk of the Dáil Éireann Peter Finnegan; Clerk of Seanad Éireann Martin Grovers; and former Senator Geraldine Feeney, ruling that the hearing would take place with Mr. Enright still facing the same case.
The SIPO hearing learned that in August 2019, Mr. Enright wrote to South East Radio to tell them that the board was reviewing its business relationship with the station.
He also said the council was withdrawing its sponsorship from the annual hospitality awards.
Investigator Rachel Lord said he believed there was sufficient evidence to warrant a public hearing to determine whether Mr Enright had violated ethics laws.
“I think there was pressure to change the station’s broadcasting practices and this was not up to the standards expected in the code of conduct,” she said.
Mr Gageby said Mr Enright’s August 30 email was meant to do one thing and that was to let South East Radio know their business relationship was coming to an end of the road.
“He writes emails signed by himself as County Council CEO saying they’ve come to the end of the road. He says so in particular because a complaint has been lodged with Sipo. “
Mr Buttle explained how Wexford County Council was the company’s first advertiser and how stressful the situation was in the fall of 2019.
At the end of the lengthy hearing, Judge Sheehan said there were plenty of documents to consider carefully, adding that the group would come together to review the submissions and make a decision.