An investigation by BBC’s ‘Spotlight’ programme broadcase on, 29th February, into the sale of NAMA’s huge property portfolio in Northern Ireland has revived an embarrassing issue for the outgoing government.
Village readers will recall how distressed commercial and residential properties, previously valued at £4.5 billion, were sold to US vulture fund Cerberus, for just £1.2 billion in April 2014. An article in December documented how the sale was now the subject of investigations in the US and the UK and by the Law Society and the Stormont finance committee in Northern Ireland.
At the centre of the controversy is former NAMA official, Ronnie Hanna, who resigned as the agency’s Head of Asset Recovery six months after the sale of the portfolio known as ‘Project Eagle’. Hanna was named in the Dáil by independent TD, Mick Wallace, as one of a small group of people who met multi-billion-dollar-backed US investment funds to promote the sale of the portfolio, accompanied by Frank Cushnahan, a former member of NAMA’s Northern Ireland Advisory Committee.
It was also sensationally claimed at the Stormont hearings in September last that Cushnahan; Belfast accountant, David Watters; former partner in Tughan’s solicitors, John Coulter; property developer, Andrew Creighton; and former DUP leader, Peter Robinson, were to receive substantial sums from the Project Eagle sale. All denied the allegations.
Cushnahan and Coulter, along with US law firm Brown Rudnick, were to take €15 million in fee payments from another US investment fund, Pimco, if its bid for the property portfolio was successful. Pimco withdrew from the process in early 2014 after its compliance officers advised that such payments would be illegal, under US law.
In March 2014, NAMA informed finance minister, Michael Noonan, of the dodgy fee arrangements being offered in connection with what is the largest ever disposal of public assets in the history of the state. Instead of calling an immediate halt to the bidding process the finance minister advised NAMA to plough ahead with the sale.
Noonan seemed implicitly to consider that the ethical problems were at the other end, in Belfast. And that the Belfast office didn’t really reflect on the Dublin office. The problem for Noonan and NAMA is that if Hanna is involved in wrongdoing that brings the culpability right back into the Dublin office and the remit of the Irish government.
Cushnahan and Coulter then encouraged Cerberus to enter the race in the clear expectation that fee payments would be made if its bid was successful. The Spotlight programme revealed that Cushnahan misled his former colleagues in NAMA by continuing secretly to work on the Cerberus deal without their knowledge. Cushnahan confirmed in a clandestinely recorded discussion last year with Belfast property developer, John Miskelly and accountant David Gray, associate of Waters, that he was due to get a “ fixer’s fee” from the Cerberus deal. He said that he and Coulter had done “all the work on the deal” but his role was kept secret because of objections from NAMA to his involvement.
Cushnahan said that Coulter moved £6 million into a holding account for him so he could be paid.
During the recorded discussion, reference is made to assistance provided by Ronnie Hanna to distressed developers. There is also a description of how Peter Robinson’s son Gareth advised Miskelly to go to Cushnahan about his NAMA-controlled debts. Miskelly confirmed to the BBC that the recordings were an accurate reflection of the lunch meeting with Cushnahan and part of an effort by him to expose the financial misconduct surrounding the sale of the Project Eagle portfolio which is under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Crime Agency in Britain. Miskelly claims he has handed evidence of wrongdoing to both.
Cerberus has denied any wrongdoing in respect of the purchase, while refusing to provide answers to detailed queries due to the ongoing criminal inquiries. Similarly, Cushnahan; Hanna who runs a private consultancy in Belfast; and Robinson, have declined to comment further. Robinson surprised many when he announced his retirement as first minister as hearings into the Project Eagle sale were taking place last Autumn. Village documented in January how Gerry Adams had in effect telegraphed Robinson on his need – in the context of ethical issues relating to the NAMA debacle of which Adams was apprised – to reinstitute the then suspended Northern Executive.
Robinson and former finance minister, Sammy Wilson, were involved in discussions with Noonan and NAMA to try to minimise the exposure to personal guarantees of a number of prominent developers in Belfast and across the North in respect of their debts taken on by the agency. Last year, it emerged that Robinson held meetings with former US president Dan Quayle, chairman of Cerberus, and had discussions on the sale with Noonan, without disclosing them to his deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness.
It now transpires that Cushnahan was on three sides of the deal having worked for NAMA, some of the bidders as well as for the distressed developers.
The latest explosive revelations prompted Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, to repeat a call for a Commission of Investigation into the NAMA sale.