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Councillor tried to have HAP tenant relocated from property while acting as estate agent

Fine Gael Councillor Danny Byrne has been found in breach of the Code of Conduct under the Local Government Act by Dublin City Council.

Civic Offices, Dublin
Civic Offices, Dublin
Image: Shutterstock.com

A FINE GAEL Councillor has been found in breach of the Local Government Act’s Code of Conduct after he requested that a HAP tenant be moved from a property he was trying to sell while acting as an estate agent. 

An ethics investigation by Dublin City Council was carried out after Councillor Danny Byrne ‘gave the impression’ that he wanted the council to move the tenant out to facilitate the sale of the property, which he was looking after as an estate agent. Byrne says that he was solely trying to find alternative accommodation for the tenant to ensure he wouldn’t become homeless. 

Byrne, who was elected to the council last year, first contacted the council’s Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) section in June to enquire about a HAP tenant. 

He told officials that he worked in property “and was trying to close a sale”, according to an email contained in an Ethics Report and seen by TheJournal.ie

Byrne wrote that he would like the matter processed “ASAP”, emails show. 

Despite being advised by the head of the Council’s HAP section that Byrne would need the tenant’s authorisation before it could divulge any information on the tenant’s HAP application, Byrne sought an update on both 17 June and 18 June, according to a letter from Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan and Lord Mayor Hazel Chu outlining the findings of an ethics report into the matter.

In one email on 18 June, Byrne said the tenant would be “made homeless if this isn’t sorted out for him”. 

Byrne was advised again on 19 June that he would need the tenant’s approval and “at no stage does [he] appear to have produced evidence that he was authorised to act on behalf of the tenant”, the letter states. 

According to a memo prepared by the head of the Council’s Head of HAP:

“I had a further conversation with Byrne where he was extremely frustrated at the sale of the house being held up because of HAP and requested that I contact the tenant.

“I advised that if a HAP application has not been received I have no basis on which to contact eligible households insisting that they apply for HAP.

[Byrne] berated the HAP scheme as needing a complete overhaul and that he would never again deal with HAP because of this situation. He also made a general accusation of people hiding behind the law (GDPR) when he was unable to access information.

The Ethics Report states that on 10 July, Byrne emailed the HAP section again saying that “thankfully the tenant had secured accommodation thus avoiding another homeless person on the streets” and asked the section “to forgive” his many calls. 

“I was very keen to ensure that he was looked after and not become another statistic. Given my occupation as an estate agent there will probably be times where there is a crossover and a potential conflict of interest.

“In that vein I would welcome any guidance as to how I can avoid that,” he wrote. 

Ethics Report 

In response to the official complaint, the Council’s Ethics Registrar was charged with drawing up a report into this matter. 

In response, Byrne replied to the Ethics Registrar.

According to the report, he “made it clear that he was working in property and that he was seeking to expedite the closure of a house sale which was held up as there was a tenant in occupation”.

image (3) Former Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy (L) with Cllr Danny Byrne during the run-up to last year's local elections.

The letter from Keegan outlining the case states: “[Byrne] claims he did not seek to influence the HAP section” and that “he simply offered to help the tenant find alternative accommodation and he was concerned that the individual would be homeless if the HAP application was not processed”.

In his defence, Byrne argued that his enquiries were “humanitarian” and that he “was not to gain anything arising from the success or otherwise of that application”.

Byrne also stated, according to Keegan’s letter, that he had “indicated he was acting in a professional capacity as an estate agent” and that he was not seeking the transfer of official information.  

He stated: “I fail to see how or where a conflict of interest arises. The HAP process had no bearing on my sale of the property in Tallaght and was in no way contingent on same.”

In his letter, Keegan said that while Byrne declared his professional interest in the closure of the property sale is relevant “it is not a full defence”. 

In his letter, Keegan stated that although it may have been a “benign request” to expedite the sale of the property, “it could be construed as an attempt to influence the HAP section”.

“Councillor Byrne maintains that he was helping to find alternative accommodation for the tenant,” Keegan said. 

“However, his email of 16 June to the Head of the HAP section gave the impression that his primary motivation was to facilitate the closure of the sale of the property.

“This would have raised legitimate concern with City Council staff because at the time the emergency pandemic legislation protected most tenants from eviction,” said Keegan.

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It’s understood that council staff were uncomfortable about the suggestion of moving a HAP tenant out of a property during lockdown despite Byrne putting forward an alternative property.

It was determined, however, that the tenant would not be in a position to afford the alternative property. 

“It is also of interest that despite being asked to submit evidence from the tenant that he was authorised to act on his behalf, [Byrne] failed to do so,” said Keegan. 

In conclusion, Keegan found that Byrne’s “implied criticisms” of Council staff regarding GDPR were “entirely inappropriate” and that his email on 10 July regarding his job as an estate agent and as a Councillor displayed “a clear lack of understanding” of the obligations imposed by the Local Government Act regarding conflicts of interest.  

Following the complaint, Byrne was found in breach of Sections 4.9, 4.10 and 4.11 of the Code of Conduct contained within the Local Government Act and that he “failed to clearly demonstrate the required separation between his personal business interests and his role as an Elected Member of the City Council,” Keegan concluded.

The findings did not uphold the complaint that he was in breach of Section 177(4) of the Act, which relates to elected members seeking to influence a decision by a local authority in relation to a matter in which they have an interest. 

Keegan said that, with regards Section 4.10, he “used his official position to benefit his business interests” and, regarding Section 4.12, “did not maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest in his dealings with City Council officials”. 

“While we are of the view that Councillor Byrne was in breach of relevant sections of the Code, we are also of the view that these breaches reflected an inadequate understanding on Councillor Byrne’s part of the obligations placed on Councillors by the Code especially given his occupation as an estate agent,” Keegan said. 

“We accept there was no deliberate intention on his part to breach the Code. We also accept that Councillor Byrne may genuinely have believed he was acting in the best interests of the tenant.”

Byrne did not respond to requests for comment. 

Byrne has been asked by the council to confirm by Friday if he accepts its findings and, if so, to give an undertaking to re-familiarise himself with obligations imposed by the Code of Conduct. 

Article 13.5 of the Council’s Code of Conduct provides that a person who is dissatisfied with “the outcome of the consideration of the matter following referral to the Ethics Registrar”, he can refer the matter to the Standards Commission.

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