Park House Hotel Ltd, the company that formerly owned and ran the Edgeworthstown hotel of the same name has been brought to court by ESB Networks Ltd over what has been referred to in court as ‘probably one of the highest’ cases of ESB fraud to be detected in the midlands over the past decade.
Appearing in Longford District Court before Judge Seamus Hughes, Keith McCarthy of ESB Networks Ltd explained that inspections were carried out on the electricity meter at the hotel on November 12, 2015, by an ESB technician.
The meter, he explained, had been interfered with and was found to be undercharging by two thirds.
“This was a three-phase meter and two phases were bypassed. It was highly unsafe with live wires exposed. We had to change the meter to make it safe,” Mr McCarthy told the court on November 12, 2019.
“In relation to the undercharge, it was calculated at 180,589 day units, 28,192 night units, which equates in euro to €37,126.70 since August 2012 - a period of 11,170 days.
“Looking at the electricity units, we could clearly see the daily average dropped from over 200 units to less than 60 units - to 59.2 actually. When we rectified it, it immediately went back up to 200.”
When the discovery was made, Mr McCarthy continued, a meeting was requested with the manager of the hotel who, at the time, he said, was Frank Kilbride.
“We contacted Mr Kilbride by phone and he met us on site. He claimed he knew nothing about it. I met him personally myself on two further occasions in Longford. He told me he owned the hotel,” said Mr McCarthy.
“If you’re a householder or a business owner, you’re used to receiving a monthly or bimonthly bill,” said Judge Seamus Hughes on hearing the evidence.
“But in any household, there’s a consistency in the amount of electricity consumed each month; slightly up or slightly down.
“But in Mr Kilbride’s case, he would’ve noticed a two thirds drop, so he must have been complimenting himself on the efficiency of his machinery and the cooking in the kitchen and the laundry.
“And he must’ve asked himself ‘what did I do that I’m saving so much on electricity?’ Isn’t that a normal question to ask? But when you put it to him in November 2015 his response was what?” he said, addressing Mr McCarthy.
“That he knew nothing about it, Judge,” the ESB representative responded.
That was “not a satisfactory explanation”, Judge Hughes noted and asked Mr McCarthy where this particular case featured in the range of frauds that the ESB had detected in the midlands region in the last decade.
“Probably one of the highest, Judge, from both a financial point of view and from a safety point of view,” Mr McCarthy responded.
Defence solicitor, Frank Gearty explained that the company’s involvement with the Park House Hotel has “entirely ceased” and that the premises is under new ownership now.
“Mr Kilbride is no longer involved,” he said.
“But was Mr Kilbride, as an individual, the main owner of the hotel?” Judge Hughes asked.
“He was a Director of the property at the time,” said Mr Gearty.
“But was he the owner of the company?” Judge Hughes pressed.
“He was,” Mr Gearty replied.
“So when the company was disposed of, was it disposed of at arm’s length or was it leased?” Judge Hughes asked, addressing Mr Kilbride himself.
Mr Kilbride confirmed that the company, property and business were completely sold and that he himself is no longer involved.
“I’m interested in this sort of fiddling that goes on and tax evasion and consumer electricity evasion,” said Judge Hughes.
“And it’s time that it was stopped. Because everybody in this court house and everybody outside is paying far too much for their electricity because of fraudsters defrauding the ESB and not paying their way. That’s why we’re paying more for electricity.
“The court is entitled to evaluate how serious this case is. Although I know deep down ESB will never recover a cent from the company called Park House Hotel Ltd. But I am interested in knowing: who are Park House Hotel Ltd? Where is that company now? Is it still trading?”
“As far as I know, it’s not trading,” Mr Kilbride clarified.
“Mr Kilbride. I appreciate who you are,” Judge Hughes replied.
“But there is perhaps a common knowledge that you were operating the hotel.”
“I wasn’t operating it personally,” Mr Kilbride objected.
In annoyance, Judge Hughes said that he had “a good mind to put this case back” so that he could focus his energies on it properly.
“Mr Kilbride, who is the main defendant hasn’t assisted the court one iota in explaining the ownership of the hotel and who was in possession of it when the general public thought he was running it and owned it,” he fumed.
“Who owns Park House Hotel Ltd? And why is he even in court if he has nothing to do with the company?”
Mr Kilbride replied that his name was in the court summons.
“That name was deleted a long time ago. So during the period of August 2012 and November 2015 were you involved in any respect?” Judge Hughes demanded of Mr Kilbride.
“I was a caretaker, Judge,” Mr Kilbride replied.
“Listen, Mr Kilbride. You’re a person of public persona. You’ve held positions of responsibility. You claim to represent the public out there in different capacities. You were the man who answered to the ESB. Would you ever come clean with your involvement during the period of three years and three months?” said Judge Hughes.
“I managed the hotel, you know that,” said Mr Kilbride.
“I don’t know that,” Judge Hughes replied before asking Mr Kilbride if he was ever a shareholder of the company.
“I was down as a director of the company,” said Mr Kilbride.
“No, were you ever a shareholder?” Judge Hughes repeated.
“I was, more than likely,” Mr Kilbride replied.
“Did you ever hear a man who claims to be a public representative say he’s ‘more than likely’ a shareholder,” said an unsatisfied Judge Hughes.
“He certainly was known to be the manager of the premises,” Mr Gearty said.
“I'm more interested to know who the owner was,” Judge Hughes asked.
“A company has shareholders, a board of directors, a statutory responsibility to file returns every year. Who was behind this? That’s all I want to know. Whoever ran the Park House Hotel should never be allowed to run a company again. They should be barred. Okay?” he said, annoyed.
“Mr Kilbride seems to have no knowledge of who owned the hotel. He doesn’t even know if he was a shareholder,” the judge continued.
“His performance here today has been abysmal and if he was the defendant, he’d be going to jail. Okay?”
Judge Hughes then turned his criticisms on the ESB, stressing that the company’s computer system can tell them how much electricity a household has used each month and that this was a case of carelessness on behalf of ESB Networks Ltd.
“You waited three and a half years. A reduction of two thirds should have put a red flag up long before three years and three months. I’m sure you’ve learned your lesson on that,” he said.
On hearing from the prosecution that the penalty for such an offence was a discretionary fine of €5,000 or six months, Judge Hughes imposed the maximum fine of €5,000 and ordered Park House Hotel Ltd to also pay the €1,350 in legal costs.
“But the company will have to be exhumed from the grave. It’s a waste of time. You’ll never see a penny of it,” Judge Hughes concluded, adding that if the fine is not paid, the case will come before him again.