The NAMA story is the media gift that keeps on giving. Not a day passes but further damaging revelations emerge of the manner in which the agency charged with selling off the distressed and other assets arising from the State’s property collapse has behaved.
Charged with disposing of commercial and residential properties on an enormous scale across Ireland, the UK, Europe and the US, NAMA and its executives have regularly encountered media criticism, court actions and political challenges.
The latest such challenge comes from the Namaleaks project sponsored by TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. People who consider themselves victims of NAMA can post their experiences online and anonymously on this website.
Launching it in mid-August, Wallace claimed that Namaleaks.com is a secure and anonymous whistleblowing platform if used in a careful and discreet fashion.
He advised that users should:
“Take your personal computer and go to a network that isn’t associated with you or your employer, such as at a coffee shop. Ideally you should go to one that you don’t already frequent. Leave your phone at home, and buy your coffee with cash. Choose a coffee shop without security cameras, or a spot within the shop where cameras aren’t recording. Be aware of your surroundings, turn your screen away from curious neighbours”.
Speaking to Village Wallace added that:
“We have received some really interesting correspondence but obviously we require hard evidence and we are very measured as to how we approach it”.
According to Wallace, it is too early to say how much information will be processed through the site but already signs are that people, including former property developers and professionals as well as many who have lost their homes and businesses as a result of the crisis, are prepared to share their stories. He claims to have up to forty separate sources of information concerning NAMA and its operations and recently took exception to an effort by one hostile newspaper to the suggestion that he is being used by one or two disgruntled but powerful developers to undermine the work of the agency.
Given the scale of transfers going on in Ireland’s distressed property market where a small number of wealthy and powerful vulture funds are acquiring substantial commercial and residential portfolios through NAMA or from receivers, at huge discounts, it is certainly inevitable that there will be sore losers.
With the news that many of these funds have been availing of the controversial Section 110 tax status to greatly minimise their taxes on vast property transactions, the questions over the manner in which the State has allowed unprecedented transfers of Irish wealth to global funds are likely to intensify.
US fund Cerberus paid just a paltry €2,500 in taxes from its €1.6bn purchase of Project Eagle, NAMA’s Northern Ireland loan book, a deal that is mired in controversy and inquiries on both sides of the border, in Britain and in the US, as reported extensively in Village.
It was Mick Wallace who first revealed in July 2015 that a number of people, including a senior politician or party was to receive monies from the sale of Project Eagle to Cerberus. It has since emerged that a member of the Northern Ireland Advisory Board of NAMA, Frank Cushnahan, was to receive a €5m fee payment from the deal, while solicitor John Coulter was involved in routing funds from the purchaser to an offshore account.
Although denied by NAMA the controversy implicated others at executive level in the agency including its former head of asset management, Ronnie Hanna, who resigned from his post in late 2014 just six months after the sale to Cerberus was agreed.
Competing bidders claimed that Cushnahan and Hanna were involved in meetings with them in advance of the bidding process, while Hanna worked in an executive role with NAMA. Both men and Coulter have been questioned by the PSNI in connection with the Project Eagle purchase.
Peter Robinson was the most prominent political casualty of the affair and announced his resignation as First Minister and DUP party leader in November last year, although he insisted that he had done nothing wrong in relation to Project Eagle. This followed the appearance at the Stormont finance committee of loyalist flags protester and blogger, Jamie Bryson, who said that Robinson was to receive monies from the transaction.
Bryson’s appearance at the finance committee in September 2015 is now the subject of fresh controversy after it emerged that he was coached in advance by its then chairman, Sinn Féin MLA, Daithi McKay.
Bryson texted McKay and his SF colleague Thomas O’Hara in advance of his appearance at committee during September 2015 and received advice on how best to get Robinson’s name into the proceedings without being blocked on procedural grounds. Bryson was widely blamed for leaking the damaging texts but vigorously denied doing so. A member of the Stormont finance committee, Jim Wells, told Village that Bryson leaked his own texts because he was annoyed that a loyalist parade near his home in Rasharkin, county Antrim was recently stopped by the Parades Commission and local nationalists. Again, Bryson disputes this. However, Village has learned that Bryson is almost certainly the source of the leak to the media which brought down McKay.
In the wake of the leaked texts, McKay, stood down as a Sinn Féin MLA. O’Hara also resigned his Sinn Féin positions. Following McKay’s resignation 18 members of the party in North Antrim did likewise in a rare moment of collective disunity and internal dissension for Sinn Féin in the North. Among the claims being made by Monica Digney, a former SF member of Ballymena District Council, is that McKay would not have acted without clearance from others further up the party hierarchy but again this is denied.
In this regard the other parties at Stormont have come looking unsuccessfully for the head of Sinn Féin finance minister and former finance committee member, Máirtin O’Muilleoir, who was mentioned in the leaked texts but it is unlikely that he will fall on his sword unless further damaging information emerges. Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has insisted that O’Muilleoir will not be going anywhere soon in a clear indication that Sinn Fein will not ship any further damage from the controversy which has distracted from the fundamental questions remaining over the Project Eagle sale and purchase.
It also appears that the DUP does not want a crisis just months into this executive but it will equally be determined that any further damage to its reputation and that of some of its most prominent personalities and supporters is avoided as the various criminal and other inquiries into Project Eagle continue.
So the focus will return to the activities of NAMA in the south and in particular to cases where former officials of the agency have been involved in dubious activities including the leaking of insider information.
Already two officials have been charged with offences involving the unauthorised disclosure of information on NAMA debtors to others. Enda Farrell pleaded guilty earlier this year to a number of charges of leaking confidential information for his own benefit and received a suspended sentence. It is understood that a number of other charges were dropped in exchange for his guilty plea and there may be further litigation by a number of parties over claims that details of their distressed assets were supplied without their knowledge or permission to external financial bodies.
Again this has been denied by NAMA. The case of another former official employed by the agency is going through the courts following the arrest in July of Paul Pugh who is accused of leaking information on the assets of builder, John McCabe, for financial gain.
Following the arrest, Wallace told the Dáil that the former official had previously come on the radar in relation to other allegations concerning NAMA and the TD has indicated that other revelations about alleged wrongdoing by people employed by the agency will follow.
What he and the others involved in the Namaleaks project are hoping is that further damaging information will emerge which will support their call for a Commission of Investigation into the Project Eagle sale and purchase and into other aspects of the agency’s work. In this regard he and Daly are supported by Sinn Féin and the other left leaning TDs in the Dail while Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been resisting such a move.
At the launch of Namaleaks Wallace also said:
“It is unfortunate that our Government does not want NAMA to be accountable to the people of Ireland. Much information has already come to our attention, which highlights serious problems in relation to how NAMA has operated. Despite the fact that many worrying issues regarding NAMA have been brought to the attention of the Government and the Opposition, on the floor of the Dáil, there remains, a stubborn reluctance to hold NAMA to account, or properly address the serious concerns through a Commission of Investigation”.
For Fine Gael and finance minister Michael Noonan in particular, any investigation involving his approval of the sale of Project Eagle would be most unwelcome particularly as he finds himself grappling with the EU Commission ruling that Apple Inc. owes €13 billion in unpaid tax to the Irish state. In early 2014 Noonan was informed by NAMA executives that other bidders had offered fee payments to people associated with the agency in order to close the deal. Unfavourable revelations about any of this in an Inquiry could prompt a sudden end to his long political career.
By Frank Connolly