By Frank Connolly
As the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) is forced to explain that “the Police Service of Northern Ireland is investigating activities relating to the purchase of €1.7bn of its assets, NOT the sale,” its latest controversy has embroiled the North’s first minister, Peter Robinson, in a battle for political survival that may be more difficult than the one which saw him resign his position for several months only a few years ago. Many will recall the embarrassment endured by the DUP leader when it emerged that his wife, Iris, was involved with a young restaurant owner though actually the more serious affair was alleged payments of money to the Robinsons by a prominent builder.
On this occasion, Peter Robinson, and his party are at the centre of the storm unleashed by Mick Wallace in the Dáil when he posed a series of questions about the disposal of NAMA assets in the North, once valued at €5.6bn, to US company, Cerberus, for €1.7bn, last year.
Robinson, along with Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, have each denied they were the unnamed politician referred to by Wallace as the expected recipient of £7m (€9.8m) placed in an Isle of Man account by Ian Coulter, a senior partner in Belfast solicitors firm, Tughans, in connection to the deal.
Over recent days, it has emerged that Robinson was accompanied by Coulter to a meeting with none other than former US vice-president and Cerberus board member, Dan Quayle, in April 2014, before the deal was cleared by the Stormont administration. This revelation has piled the pressure on the first minister and on Coulter who reportedly resigned when his partners discovered, and retrieved, the offshore funds.
The fact that the money which Wallace insisted was intended as a payment to a politician or a party in the North was not actually delivered has taken the sting out of what would otherwise be a sensational story but it has raised more questions than answers so far.
When Coulter resigned from his role as senior partner with Tughan’s and as head of the Confederation of British Industry in January the business world in the North was rife with rumour but the story only came to public attention with Wallace’s dramatic Dáil contribution almost six months later. For NAMA, already in defensive mode from a string of claims that it has been unloading bucket loads of assets in Dublin and across the country to vulture funds at knock-down prices, it has meant an unwelcome focus on its operations north of the border.
In particular, it revived an earlier controversy surrounding two of its Northern Ireland special advisors, Frank Cushnahan and Brian Rowntree, both of whom stood down from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive following an unrelated controversy surrounding dodgy public land disposals two years ago.
Cushnahan resigned early from NAMA and subsequently was allegedly to receive £5m in acquisition fees from PIMCO, a global investment firm, which pulled out of the tendering process after telling NAMA that it had been approached for payments by some of those it encountered during its discussions on the deal for 850 prime properties in what was called the Project Eagle portfolio. The NAMA assets were then sold to Cerberus.
He referred, presumably lucrative, work to Tughans with whom he shares an office building in Belfast city centre and is an associate of Coulter, who has declined to talk to the media since he fell on his sword. Solicitors for Cushnahan have insisted that he fulfilled all his fiduciary responsibilities in any of his dealings for NAMA, while the agency said that he had no access to its confidential information on the Project Eagle portfolio while serving as an advisor to it.
This tangled web will be unravelled before the Stormont finance committee in the coming days while the Law Society in the North is looking into Coulter’s role (a process that could take some time if its moves at a similar pace to its counterpart in Dublin) while Wallace has indicated that he may release further information he has gleaned about the Cerberus deal.
Cerberus and its US solicitors, Brown Rudnick, have insisted that they did not make any payments to any other party connected to NAMA in relation to the bid. Brown Rudnick has also confirmed that it hired Tughan’s to carry out work on its behalf and had paid it some £7.5m out of the £15m in fees it earned from the deal. Handy work if you can get it.
But not as sweet as the potential profit which Cerberus can earn when, and if, it flips the Project Eagle portfolio as the property market recovers in the North.
The Dáil Public Accounts Committee will have an opportunity to explore this aspect of the deal when it questions NAMA about the manner in which the 850 properties were valued in what it maintains was a “robust sales process” which “achieved the maximum value to the Irish taxpayer”.
Meanwhile Peter Robinson, whose son’s PR company provided services for some the companies at the centre of the controversy, will have a few sleepless nights as he ponders this latest “payments” row. He must also be regretting that private meeting with Coulter and Dan Quayle who has a habit of causing embarrassment to those around him. •