The revelation that the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) has failed to disclose “relevant material” to the Commission of Investigation into its controversial sale of its 11.5 billion (£1.24 million) Project Eagle loan portfolio in the North in 2014 will not come as any surprise.
Many NAMA watchers have been wondering how the Commission, headed by retired High Court judge, John Cooke, has been progressing given that it is now more than a year since it was established.
It took the previous two years to convince the reluctant former Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to concede to a formal inquiry into the portfolio sale to US fund Cerberus despite the dramatic and shocking allegations of corporate and political corruption that first emerged in July 2015.
At that time, Independent TD, Mick Wallace, told the Dáil that a sum of £7m had been lodged in an Isle of Man bank account in connection with the sale and that it was intended for political and business interests associated with Project Eagle.
NAMA executives were not exactly forthcoming about the background to the loan disposal and rejected out of hand the conclusions of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), in September 2016 that the agency had incurred a loss of a potential €223m (£190m) from the sale.
The C&AG, Seamus McCarthy, resisted intense pressure from Noonan, the Department of Finance and NAMA executives and board to withdraw his damning report which then formed the basis of an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee in late 2016. Its report was even more damning of the agency and of Noonan’s role in permitting the sale to proceed despite knowledge of questionable fee payments relating to it.
The finance committee at Stormont carried out its own investigation in 2015 to which many of the parties to the deal gave evidence – although the NAMA chairman, Frank Daly and chief executive, Brendan McDonagh declined an invitation to attend as did the senior staff and advisors of the agency most intimately connected to the Project Eagle sale.
Although it was essentially a ‘value for money’ exercise the C&AG report highlighted serious conflicts of interest in the sale process, not least relating to the role of Frank Cushnahan, the former member of the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee of NAMA.
The C&AG reported that NAMA underestimated the value of the loans, applied too high a discount and had failed to act when it discovered details of some £15m in “success fees” promised to Cushnahan, US law rm Brown Rudnick and Belfast solicitor, Ian Coulter of Tughans by US fund PIMCO before it withdrew from the sale in March 2014.
Since then Cushnahan, Coulter and a former head of asset recovery at the agency, Ronnie Hanna, have been questioned by the National Crime Agency in connection with the deal while former first minister, Peter Robinson and his son Gareth, have also come under scrutiny for their role in the extraordinary Project Eagle affair.
Hanna and Cushnahan were arrested in May 2016 while Coulter, a former head of the Confederation of British Industry in the North who was responsible for transferring some £5 million to the Isle of Man in late 2014 after the sale to Cerberus was completed was also subjected to a grilling by the NCA team. Property developer John Miskelly who admitted to the BBC some years ago that he had legitimately paid large sums of cash to Cushnahan, and had secretly taped his exchanges with the business consultant, was also arrested in 2017 as part of the NCA probe.
Last month, it emerged that charges may now be brought against two of the nine people under investigation and there is intense speculation as to who, if anyone, will finally be brought to account over a property disposal that helped to Enrich Cerberus and associated accountancy, legal and other professionals at the expense of the public purse.
Also intriguing is the recent decision by the DPP to withdraw charges against a former NAMA official who was accused of disclosing confidential information from the agency. In this case, NAMA executives made the complaint which led to the arrest of its former staff member Paul Pugh in 2013. Pugh was charged with intentionally disclosing loan and other details relating to builder, John McCabe and his UK company, McCabe Builders. Pugh was accused of sending the information to Gehane Tew k of London based Connaught & Whitehall Capital UK in June 2012.
When the case came to court in recent months the DPP and investigating gardaí said that they were not proceeding with the prosecution for reasons that were not fully explained to the judge or the public. It appears that the NAMA executives whose complaint prompted the arrest of Pugh in the first place are now less than enthusiastic about pursuing the case, despite the five-year investigation into the matter. Not for the first time, NAMA has failed to disclose its reasons for not pursuing this case to conclusion.