Saturday, October 1, 2016
Garda whistleblower’s life irrevocably changed
Keith Harrison at his Letterkenny home. Picture: North West Newspix
Garda Keith Harrison traces many of his woes back to the night in 2009 when he stopped a garda colleague for drink-driving in Athlone. The charge against his colleague was dismissed in court, but Gda Harrison has no regrets about how he handled the matter.
There were other incidents which may have contributed to him becoming unpopular with fellow officers. He had concerns about the conduct of some investigations of drug-dealing which he raised, but then let lie. He impounded a jeep in 2008 after the owner drove through a checkpoint.
A colleague asked him to cut the offender some slack. He refused to play ball.
Gda Harrison has baggage. He has been disciplined. He has been prosecuted for failure to have his car insured, but the judge in the case did remark that it was down to a misunderstanding and fined him with no disqualification from driving.
Where he finds himself today is isolated, on reduced pay, and of the belief that his road back to full employment is blocked. He also believes that he has been harassed for pointing out wrongs and having the temerity to fall in love with a woman of whose family his colleagues disapproved.
Gda Harrison first felt that he was being scrutinised when on September 4, 2009, a superintendent told him he had been appointed to examine his work and discipline. This was just three months after he arrested a colleague for drink-driving.
The investigation produced nine separate disciplinary charges. One of these concerned a complaint from a publican who claimed that, on an occasion nine months earlier Gda Harrison, had been discourteous towards him. Another was from a woman whom Gda Harrison had prosecuted for having no tax or insurance on her vehicle.
Despite the list of charges, the ultimate outcome was that Gda Harrison was fined €200, which is pretty paltry for a process that required a superintendent to investigate for a couple of months.
Then there was the claim for expenses. While attending a five-day public order training course in September 2009, Gda Harrison used his brother’s car to travel as his own was off the road for the month and untaxed. To avoid complications, he claimed the expenses for his own vehicle.
There was no monetary difference in the claim, but he was pulled up on it. (Ultimately, he didn’t even pursue the expenses.) Not just that, but a superintendent signed a statement that he had seen Gda Harrison driving his untaxed car when he had said it was out of action.
He was fined €5,200 for the offence. Prior to arresting his colleague, he had had a good disciplinary record for 10 years in the job. Following the disciplinary process, he was relocated to another office. While at the second office, he requested a transfer.
He had met an old flame whom he had known in college. Marisa McDermott was the mother of two young children whose marriage had broken down. She and Gda Harrison ran into each other and began a relationship.
Ms McDermott is from Donegal, where she was working as a secondary school teacher. Gda Harrison saw it as an opportunity for a fresh start and asked for a move north.
He was transferred to Buncrana in 2011 and things got off to a good start. He was living with Ms McDermott outside Letterkenny, half an hour from Buncrana. Then his partner’s identity became known to colleagues.
Ms McDermott’s brother Martin had been convicted of manslaughter after he rammed a squad car in 2009, killing 24-year-old Gda Gary McLoughlin. He had up to 100 previous convictions and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Ms McDermott had been using her married name. She is not her brother’s keeper, but communities in north Donegal are tightly knit. For some in the force in Buncrana, the man’s crime was such as to render anybody closely related to him toxic.
Things changed for Gda Harrison after that. There was disgust in some quarters that he would have anything to do with a sibling of Martin McDermott’s. His past had not been an issue up until then, but now it was viewed in a different light.
His reputation preceded him. Things didn’t get much better, he says. Then he made the cock-up with his insurance, which had lapsed by a day or two, over a misunderstanding on paperwork.
The offence was not detected at a checkpoint but by a colleague of Gda Harrison’s, who noticed the disc in his car outside the garda station. The judge accepted this was an unusual case.
“Driving without insurance is a very serious matter but there are mitigating circumstances,” said the judge in imposing a fine. “It wasn’t just a blatant case of driving without insurance.”
By then, the middle of 2014, Gda Harrison was persona non grata.
He decided to document all he had been subjected to.
He compiled an affidavit and handed it to his local TD, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, who read it into the record of the Dáil on May 15, 2014.
“He claims that a managerial review of his high work returns and practices was instigated and persons who had past interactions with Gda Harrison in the execution of his duties were invited by the gardaí to make complaints against him,” said Mr Doherty.
He went on to say that Gda Harrison claimed that, from September 2009 until March 2011, he was office-bound while the garda arrested for drink-driving was still driving official vehicles and carrying an official firearm.
Following that, Gda Harrison met the then Confidential Recipient (the office set up to receive whistleblower complaints) and detailed what had occurred. Some of the complaints he made about malpractice in the midlands would later overlap with complaints made by another whistleblower, Nick Keogh.
An investigation was set up within the force to examine Gda Harrison’s complaints. He met the investigating officer in a hotel accompanied by a solicitor, Trevor Collins, who was on this case for the first time.
The following day, Mr Collins’ Linkedin profile was viewed by an account associated with an officer from the Midlands of whom Gda Harrison had complained.
Gda Harrison and his solicitor believed that details of the case had been leaked and that this represented a conflict of interest.
A letter was dispatched from the solicitor to Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan in June 2014 outlining the concerns.
“The failure of the investigating team to disclose this conflict prior to or during the course of the meeting is deeply concerning,” the letter read.
“This failure to disclose the conflict undermines the credibility and bona fides of the Garda investigation. The non-disclosure of the conflict of interest caused shock, distress and upset to our client. Garda Harrison believes that the investigation team you appointed is prejudiced and biased as a consequence of this conflict.”
The commissioner said she would consider referring the investigation to GSOC, which she did in August 2014.
The GSOC probe has had its own issues. Two years on from Gda Harrison’s complaint, there has been little progress. On September 2, a letter was dispatched to the chair of GSOC, Judge Mary Ellen Ring.
“Two years have now elapsed since the matter was referred to GSOC and yet there has been no progress with investigation despite the fact that our client has co-operated in full with the investigators appointed by the commission,” read the letter. “Our client is deeply concerned at the delay and its probable effect on the eventual outcome. We understand that no witnesses have been interviewed, save for our client’s partner being interviewed in the past number of weeks and despite the fact that she had made herself available for interview at the time of our client’s first interview.”
A response from a GSOC investigator was apologetic.
“As you are aware GSOC has experienced a delay in receiving information from AGS to assist in my investigation,” it read. “There is still one request outstanding and I was informed that a reminder was issued to AGS for the information.”
Over the last two years, Gda Harrison’s legal team claims he has had to endure stress on multiple fronts. He is classified as ‘on sick leave’ and wants to be allowed to return to work. He no longer has an income and has been forced to apply for disability benefit.
Then there are the allegations of harassment. On three occasions, he has been informed of death threats against him.
The third of these involved a man who rang a station from Perth in Australia in August last year, saying he had a bullet for Gda Harrison.
This man was beyond the reach of the gardaí, but in November last year, his name appeared in the local paper after he appeared in court in Buncrana.
Gda Harrison told GSOC he believes the death threats were fabricated in order to give elements of the force an excuse to patrol outside his house. He claims to have observed an inordinate number of patrols passing his home over the last 18 months.
Spokespeople for An Garda Síochána have repeatedly stated that it would be inappropriate to comment on any ongoing GSOC investigation.
Some of these claims may be exaggerated, some may result from coincidences, or accidents or misinterpretations. After seven years of being regarded in somewhat suspicious terms by some of his colleagues, Gda Harrison may have a heightened sense of persecution.
Two years on from his complaint, he still has no answers. Seven years down the road from the night he arrested a fellow officer, his life has been irrevocably changed.