Sean Dunne wants to challenge allegations he stored valuable art behind a 'false wall'

Wednesday 19 March 2014 19.19
Sean Dunne is challenging the legality of a search warrant application (Pic: Graham Hughes, Photocall)
Sean Dunne is challenging the legality of a search warrant application (Pic: Graham Hughes, Photocall)

Developer Sean Dunne has asked the High Court for a chance to clear his name against allegations that he used a secret panel or false wall to store valuable art work in a luxury house while planning to remove it from the country.

Mr Dunne is challenging the legality of what he claims was "an unjustified and unwarranted" application for a search warrant by a bankruptcy official last November.

Lawyers for Mr Dunne told the High Court the warrant was obtained using hearsay evidence in a private court sitting without notice to him.

The property, including artwork, golf memorabilia and other personal documents, was seized from a house in the K Club last year.

The court-appointed official assignee in bankruptcy Chris Lehane obtained a search warrant after receiving information that Mr Dunne was arranging to move valuable artwork which was stored behind a false wall in the house.

In a subsequent statement, Mr Lehane said there was "indeed a false wall, precisely consistent with the information I received, when a panel can be removed from the back wall of the bookshelves underneath the stairs".

He also said a safe in the house contained the keys to another safe which was not located.

Mr Dunne disputes that there was any false wall and said the area referred to is "simply a storage unit under the stairs containing the sound system for the house".

He says the house is not owned by him but the court heard that he stays there when in Ireland.

Mr Dunne claims the items were not of high value but were of sentimental value to his family. Many of the items belonged to other family members and had not been returned.

The official assignee said it was clear there was no other way to view the house "other than a home he maintains and uses in Ireland".

Mr Dunne, who has been declared bankrupt in the US and in Ireland, wants the warrant declared invalid and wants to cross examine the official assignee who obtained the search warrant.

Mr Lehane is opposing the application to cross examine him and says Mr Dunne's challenge can be carried out through legal argument and submissions.

Senior Counsel Mark Sanfey said the court should only order the cross examination if it would elucidate information on the main issue before the court which was the validity of the warrant.

He said Mr Dunne's request to cross examine Mr Lehane was a fishing exercise aimed at future litigation.

He also said Mr Lehane does not have to reveal the source of the information used in his application for the search warrant.

Section 28 of the Bankruptcy Act allows for a search and seizure warrant to be issued where the official assignee has reason to believe that property of a bankrupt may be located in a house or other property which may not be owned by the bankrupt.

However Mr Dunne claims such warrants should not be granted on hearsay evidence.

Senior Counsel Bill Shipsey said the warrant was obtained on sworn statements submitted by the official assignee which contained hearsay evidence about the property.

He said Mr Lehane was claiming some sort of "journalistic privilege" in refusing to disclose the source of the information and refusing to name his informant.

Mr Shipsey said Mr Dunne was vehemently denying what he believed were "unsubstantiated and baseless allegations" made by the official assignee in the sworn statements used to obtain the warrant.

In his statement to the court Mr Dunne said allegations of this nature, even if unsupported, could prejudice his US bankruptcy in particular his efforts to be discharged from bankruptcy in the US.

He claims his constitutional right to fair procedures was breached when the search warrant was granted without affording him an opportunity to challenge the evidence.

He said it was implicitly alleged in Mr Lehane's statements that he lied on oath in the US proceedings and had given an incomplete statement of affairs.

He said there was not truth or substance to these allegations.

He was also concerned that Mr Lehane continued to make generalised complaints that he was not co-operating with him.

Mr Dunne said it was always his understanding that an "ad hoc protocol" would be put in place to govern the US and Irish bankruptcies and to date no such protocol had been devised.

He said it was therefore questionable as to whether the official assignee here had any power to act in relation to his estate or obtain a search warrant.

Mr Shipsey said Mr Dunne was willing to give evidence to the court by video link, prompting the judge to ask: "but he is not willing to come to court?"

Mr Shipsey said his client returns to Ireland occasionally to visit his mother but was not planning to return for another three months. There were cost and convenience factors to consider, he said.

Mr Justice McGovern said it was clear Sean Dunne was in France last weekend as legal documents had been stamped in Paris.

Mr Dunne maintains the K Club property is 100% owned by an Isle of Man trust company which is part of a structure set up in 1989 to hold property in trust for his children.

He said there was no dispute about the ownership of the property and the official assignee had been given documents which put the issue of ownership beyond doubt.

He said Mr Lehane had relied on insurance documentation to show he had paid for the insurance on the property.

The court was told Mr Lehane believed Mr Dunne to be the beneficial owner of a company, Traviata, which was the owner of the K Club property.

Mr Justice McGovern will give his judgment at a later date.