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Ireland's PM Ahern returns to witness stand in anti-corruption tribunal

Prime Minister of Ireland Bertie Ahern returned to the witness stand Thursday to face questions about secret cash payments he received in the 1990s, a scandal weakening his decade-long grip on power.

An anti-corruption tribunal investigating bribery among politicians, lobbyists and property developers has discovered four cash deposits in 1994 and 1995 into the accounts of Ahern and his then-girlfriend, Celia Larkin, exceeding EUR100,000 (US$140,000).

But in his third day of testimony, Ahern denied hiding funds - although he admitted not detailing one 50,000 Irish pound (EUR63,500, US$89,000) transfer into his girlfriend's account.

"That's what I did. You have a problem with that?" Ahern said during one particularly testy exchange with the probe's senior lawyer, Des O'Neill, whom Ahern mockingly described as "the wizard."

O'Neill accused Ahern of seeking to hide from the three-judge tribunal the fact that much of the undocumented money deposited into his accounts had been converted from foreign currency. He said it took 2 1/2 years of letters with Ahern's lawyers for this to be admitted.

"I wasn't hiding anything. Any questions that ever came up, I answered them," Ahern replied.

About 200 citizens and 100 journalists packed the Dublin Castle venue for the testimony, which was not allowed to be recorded for broadcast. State-funded RTE radio broadcast highlights of the Ahern-O'Neill arguments using actors working from transcripts.

The scrutiny of Ahern's personal finances has intensified speculation about who will succeed him as prime minister and leader of Fianna Fail, Ireland's dominant political party for decades. Ahern, 56, has pledged that his current five-year term as prime minister will be his last.

Ahern says he received money from 39 business friends, all in cash and in a mixture of Irish and British currency, but granted them no political favors in return. He has declined to identify most of the donors, saying he simply can't remember.

Ahern insists that the foreign money was all British pounds. The probe's investigators say their trawl of foreign-exchange records at Ahern's bank suggest, instead, that Ahern deposited US$45,000 on at least one occasion, but Ahern denies ever dealing in U.S. dollars.

Ahern testified he couldn't be certain how much money he received, or in what mix of Irish and British currencies, because he kept no personal financial records - this at a time when he was Ireland's finance minister.

"I would have been getting on with the job and not really worried how the money was going around the place," he said, referring to his personal income and donations.

Ahern was drawn into the investigation six years ago after a London-based property developer, Tom Gilmartin, accused him of taking bribes from a rival property developer in the early 1990s. Ahern has denied the accusations, which involved acquiring the rights to build one of Dublin's major shopping malls.

Investigators have found it difficult to substantiate or refute Gilmartin's claim because Ahern kept no bank accounts in Ireland at all from 1987 to 1994. Ahern has derided Gilmartin as a fantasist, citing his assertion that Ahern had hidden millions overseas in accounts from Liechtenstein to the Dutch Antilles.

Ahern's political mentor was former Prime Minister Charles Haughey, who died last year after being forced by another fact-finding tribunal to admit he received more than EUR11 million (US$14 million) from top Irish businessmen while in office. Ahern, as Fianna Fail treasurer, sometimes signed blank checks from the party's account for Haughey's benefit.

Ahern has previously testified that he thought Haughey - who owned a vast Georgian estate, horses, a yacht and his own island - was spending the money on legitimate Fianna Fail business.