The prospect of a Commission of Investigation into the sale by NAMA of its Northern Ireland property portfolio to US vulture fund, Cereberus, in April 2014, looks to be receding by the day.
Judging by the demeanour and language of finance minister, Michael Noonan, during a special debate on the issue on 1 February the Government has no intention of exploring the serious allegations of corruption and fixer fees that surrounded the Project Eagle deal, despite an all-party agreement to set up a commission.
Given that Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin had pressed the Taoiseach to agree to a Commission last year, it seemed until then that Enda Kenny and Noonan would have no choice but to accede to the calls across the opposition benches for an inquiry into the astounding claims about the sale which have been aired north and south of the border over the past eighteen months.
Indeed on 1 February, Fianna Fáil finance spokesman, Micheál McGrath, accused Noonan of resiling from the Taoiseach’s promise of an inquiry just a few months ago, and said he detected what he described as a “muddying of the waters” in relation to the Government’s commitment.
“There is a shift here in the Government’s position”, he told Noonan in response to the claim by the finance minister that any “Commission of Inquiry cannot circumvent the Garda or other law enforcement agencies” such as the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the UK and the Security and Exchange Commission and the FBI in the US, which are investigating the Project Eagle deal.
“What should be most obvious is that a Commission of Investigation cannot deal with a range of non-specific claims”, Noonan replied before raising concern over the possibility of “unfocused and ill-defined” inquiries which could distract NAMA from completing its vital task of winding down its distressed loan book. He said that the findings of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) investigation due for publication within weeks should be assessed in any case before any decision on a Commission is made by the Oireachtas.
With that, the chairman of the PAC and Fianna Fáil deputy, Sean Fleming, got to his feet alongside McGrath to trot out all the reasons why a Commission may not be the best way forward given that his committee had already covered a lot of ground during its public hearings last year. A FF double act was revealed when Fleming expressed his concern that “NAMA will fold up its tent” long before any commission makes its findings.
It would have problems with compelling witnesses from outside the jurisdiction, Fleming said, and that it would be preferable and less costly for the Oireachtas to do the job of investigating such matters, rather than an inquiry led by an independent judicial figure.
Careful not to contradict his party colleague, it was evident to those listening from the other opposition benches that Fianna Fáil was engaged in a public u-turn. Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin immediately noted the display of political gamesmanship between the two largest parties. He rounded on Noonan for failing to use his powers to stop the sale of Project Eagle in April 2014 when he was informed of the £15 million fixer-fee arrangements promised to a former member of NAMA’s Northern Ireland Advisory Committee (NIAC), Frank Cushnahan, Tughans Solicitors and solicitors Brown Rudnick – by US fund Pimco.
Doherty reminded Noonan that he had instructed NAMA in relation to other matters and the minister’s argument that he was not legally empowered to intervene with the Project Eagle sale was untrue and unsustainable. In other words, Noonan has a political interest in preventing any independent public inquiry into the sale and purchase, despite the strong whiff of corruption involved in it. Further, Doherty asked about the developers whose loans were taken into NAMA who have repaid substantially less than the money they owed despite the expressed intentions by the agency’s architects that it would pursue “developers to the end of the earth” for every cent they owed.
His colleague, David Cullinane, a member of the PAC, reminded Noonan of the sequence of events which led to Pimco withdrawing from the sale process in March 2014 when it was advised by its own compliance department that the fee payments were in breach of US law.
He described how Cushnahan and Ian Coulter of Tughans had been working with solicitors Brown Rudnick as far back as 2012 in relation to the NI Portfolio and on the basis of a potential £15 million fee to be shared between them if successful in offloading the portfolio through a single sale. They met Pimco in April 2013 and then a month later brought the US investors to meet NI first minister Peter Robinson and finance minister Sammy Wilson, to discuss the “conceptual transaction” they envisaged.
In other words, a member of the NIAC, apparently without the knowledge of the NAMA board, chairman or chief executive, was exploring a possible fire-sale of its NI loans to interested buyers. NAMA already knew that Cushnahan had associations with six NAMA debtors, which raised potential conflicts of interest that were subsequently explored in last year’s critical report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on the sale.
But the CAG was only dealing with the value-for-money aspects of the sale, not the entire “corrupted process” that appears now to have underpinned it, Cullinane said.
If this assessment and further contributions by PBP/AAA TD’s Richard Boyd Barrett and Ruth Coppinger were not enough to scare the government troops from going anywhere near a Commission of Inquiry, an impassioned speech by Independents for Change TD, Mick Wallace, must certainly have done the trick.
Wallace outlined a series of sensitive matters which such an inquiry must investigate including the unauthorised leaking of documents from NAMA, the allegation of cash payments made to agency officials by clients seeking to get from out of its clutches, and the more recent claim by businessman Barry Lloyd that he was approached as far back as December 2010 by Cushnahan to broker the sale of NAMA properties in the North to Asian investors. Lloyd dealt with Cushnahan and Tughans until a proposed deal fell through in December 2012 leaving him exposed to the wrath of the potential buyers unhappy with the manner in which the negotiations concluded.
Wallace went on to remind Noonan and others how the planned deal with Pimco was constructed and how Lazards and other external consultants supposedly in charge of overseeing the Project Eagle sale were excluded from vital aspects of the process. When Pimco withdrew over the £15m fee-demand, and Cerberus entered the competition in late March 2014, NAMA executives apparently did not bother to ask the new bidders whether they had been approached for any inappropriate payments.
“NAMA didn’t ask about Cerberus paying fixer fees”, Wallace exploded, as he proceeded to name others he claimed were central to negotiating the £1.24bn purchase by the giant US fund of the portfolio of more than 800 distressed properties across the North, once valued at £4.6bn.
He said that Belfast accountant David Watters “put the deal together” with Coulter and Cushnahan in Belfast, while NAMA executive Ronnie Hanna “did the deal in Dublin”.
He said that NAMA threw Cushnahan “under the bus” when his role in the affair emerged in mid-2015, not least through Wallace’s sensational claims in the Oireachtas in July of that year that senior politicians were among those due to benefit from a Stg£7m sum lodged offshore.
Wallace reminded the by now shell-shocked, if depleted, government benches and those viewing on Oireachtas TV, that Hanna had been identified by Cushnahan in the now infamous tapes made by developer John Miskelly and broadcast on the BBC Spotlight programme over the past year, as a key figure in his efforts to assist distressed Belfast developers.
He described how Cushnahan said on tape that Ronnie Hanna would “ensure that John Miskelly’s lights would not be put out”. Hanna, a former Ulster Bank executive in Belfast, was a Dublin-based head of asset management with NAMA until he resigned in October 2014. He, Cushnahan and Coulter have been arrested and questioned by the NCA about the allegations surrounding the Project Eagle sale.
Wallace went on to claim that NAMA had misled Oireachtas hearings by claiming that it did not know anything of the £15m fee payments until he had made his damning Dáil statement in July 2015.
“Is it credible?”, Wallace asked. “I know someone asked to look into the £15m in January 2015, by NAMA”.
He went on to list other claims which had arrived through the NAMALeaks website he set up and which concerned alleged payments of large amounts of cash to NAMA officials, including into offshore accounts.
There are “new kids on the block”, he said, whose fortunes “are built on the proceeds of crime”.
In this country, Wallace said, “we don’t like the truth, we don’t want to hold state bodies to account. Nama is rotten to the core and the minister knows it”. By then, Michael Noonan had left the scene leaving others to take the brunt of the verbal offensive from the Wexford TD.
“Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are engaged in deception in dealing with the people of Ireland”, he said, as he watched the prospects of a thorough investigation into Project Eagle and other NAMA disposals drift away, for now.
By Frank Connolly