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Judges: Ireland's ex-leader Bertie Ahern got $276K in secret payments, lied about them

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern denied doing anything wrong, but resigned from office in 2008 after 11 years in power.

DUBLIN -- Former Irish premier Bertie Ahern lied about the source of substantial sums of money he received, an inquiry concluded on Thursday in a long-awaited report into the dealings of one of the architects of Ireland's ill-fated economic boom.

The verdict comes four years after the economy collapsed under the strain of a decade-long housing and banking boom, cultivated by Ahern and his Fianna Fail party, and a year after the party was ejected from power by angry voters.

Set up in 1997, the Mahon Tribunal probed the relationships between politicians and property developers after builders made vast profits on land re-zoned as commercial.

'Endemic' corruption
In its report it said corruption was "endemic and systemic" at every level of government in Ireland in the late 1990s. Ahern was Taoiseach, or prime minister, from 1997 to 2008.

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Ahern was one of Europe's longest serving premiers and widely praised for his work in resolving a three-decade conflict in Northern Ireland.

The three judges led by Justice Alan Mahon found that Ahern received at least €209,779 ($276,000) in secret payments while in office and repeatedly lied about this under oath. The report stopped short of finding Ahern guilty of corruption, because they couldn't prove that Ahern gave favors to any of his cash donors when he was finance minister in the 1990s.

The judges did find two other former lawmakers in Ahern's Fianna Fail party, including former Cabinet minister and European Union commissioner Padraig Flynn, guilty of corruption for soliciting payments from property developers for personal use. They also found 11 past and present members of local councils guilty of the same offense.

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While the report itself was a fact-gathering effort and not a direct finding of any criminal wrongdoing, Prime Minister Enda Kenny referred its contents to state prosecutors, the national police force, tax collection authorities and the Standards in Public Office Commission. Potential offenses include corruption, obstruction of justice and tax evasion.

The report "clearly sets out corrupt practices among a number of politicians," said Kenny, who declined to say whether he considered Ahern among them.

Ahern's former special adviser in government, Gerry Howlin, described the findings as "far worse than anything I expected or believed possible."

Bizarre testimony
Ahern, whose often bizarre and implausible 2007 testimony enraptured the nation, denied doing anything wrong, but resigned from office in 2008 after 11 years in power. He issued a lengthy rebuttal Thursday night accusing the judges of unfairness and vowing to clear his name.

"I am disappointed that the tribunal has said that I failed to give a truthful account," Ahern said. "... I never took a bribe or corrupt payment. I never made a political decision in return for a payment. I hid nothing."

Yet even his own party, whose name means "soldiers of destiny" in Gaelic, failed to believe him.

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Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin announced after a late-night meeting of party lawmakers that he intended to expel Ahern from party membership. The decision was expected to become official March 30.

"The receipt by a senior office holder of large amounts of money which a sworn tribunal has held is of unclear origins, and the failure to give any credible explanation, requires an unequivocal response," said Martin, who served in three Cabinet posts in Ahern-led governments.

Trust 'betrayed'
He said Ahern's receipt of surreptitious funds, and his delivery of false testimony, "betrayed the trust placed in him by this country and this party."

No Irish politicians have been convicted of corruption as a result of investigations into the bribery culture at the heart of Irish property development. Prosecutions are hampered, in part, by the fact that the government passed no credible anti-bribery laws until 1996, leaving tax evasion as the only readily proven offense.

Ahern's longtime accountant and friend, Des Peelo, conceded that Ahern's testimony had been hard to swallow, but said the judges couldn't prove Ahern was lying.

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"The fact that something is bizarre does not make it untrue. Some aspects of his finances were bizarre," Peelo said.

It investigated allegations that Ahern accepted money from a developer in return for favors, a charge he rejected. He said his finances were complex but not improper during the turmoil that followed the breakdown of his marriage in the 1990s.

Ahern had admitted to accepting an envelope filled with 8,000 pounds ($12,700) in 50-pound notes from businessmen after speaking at a function in Manchester in 1994, which he said was his speaking fee. In late 2006 it emerged friends and businessmen had lent him 50,000 euros ($66,000).

"He told me he was telling the truth," special adviser Howlin said. "His narrative is not believed, and it is damning and it is serious. ... His reputation has been very seriously damaged."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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