Isn’t it nothing sort of remarkable that the Irish Independent failed to explore the extraordinary role played by Michael Noonan and his officials in the Department of Finance in the Project Eagle affair until just after the votes were counted in the February election?
While the newspaper had covered the story over several months it found space on its front page for an exploration of Noonan’s role only after the election results were in, and partisan energy had considerably dissipated.
This followed the publication of a report by the Stormont finance committee into the Project Eagle affair which, as Village has revealed over several months, contributed directly to the resignation of Peter Robinson as first minister and DUP leader late last year. The committee report expressed concern at Noonan’s willingness to ignore embarrassing information about controversial fee payments of which he was informed and instead of halting the bidding process instructed NAMA to proceed with the disposal of the massive residential and commercial loan portfolio.
In early 2014, NAMA was informed by Pimco, a US fund bidding for the £4 billion (€6.5 billion) property portfolio that it had been asked for a £15 million success fee to be divided between US law firm Brown Rudnick, Belfast solicitors Tughans and a member of the agency’s advisory committee in Northern Ireland, Frank Cushnahan, in connection with the Project Eagle tender.
NAMA informed Noonan of this irregular and enormous side-payment request but, instead of halting the process, the finance minister suggested that the largest sale of property assets in the history of the state should proceed. Pimco withdrew from the process on the instructions of its compliance officers in the US.
Another giant US fund, Cerberus, subsequently purchased the portfolio for £1.2 billion (€1.6 billion) later that year before it emerged that in excess of Stg£6 million (€7 million) had been lodged by lawyers acting for it in an Isle of Man account. The money was lodged by then Tughans partner, Ian Coulter and, according to Mick Wallace TD, was intended for Cushnahan and others including, it has been alleged, a leading politician or party.
In February last, the BBC Spotlight programme broadcast a secret recording in which Cushnahan admitted that he was due a significant fee from the Cerberus deal, contradicting previous claims that he was not due to receive any money. Cushnahan, a former adviser in Robinson’s office of NI First Minister, also claims he and Coulter had put the Cerberus deal together but his role was kept secret from Nama.
On top of these claims it has now emerged that a senior executive from Fortress, the underbidder against Cerberus in the deal, met Cushnahan and Ronnie Hanna, then NAMA head of asset recovery, in December 2012 to discuss the agency’s Northern Ireland loan-book some 12 months before it was put up for open sale. Cushnahan left the NI advisory board of NAMA in late 2013 while Hanna resigned from NAMA in late 2014, six months after the sale to Cerberus was completed.
Mike George, the managing director of the US private equity group, a Belfast man, made a presentation to the NAMA pair at the Tughans office in Belfast during the December 2012 meeting. NAMA has refused to respond to queries over this latest revelation which puts a former senior NAMA executive in a room alongside a former advisor to the agency who has admitted to seeking side payments from the enormous sale.
George refused to confirm that such a meeting took place when contacted by Village last autumn but said he was concerned about the manner in which the Project Eagle sales process was conducted, indicating that some bidders had access to more information than others on the quality and value of the huge portfolio of distressed assets across the North.
Can anyone seriously suggest that Michael Noonan is suitable to have have his tenure as finance minister renewed in a new government while questions surrounding his judgement and actions in the Project Eagle controversy remain unanswered?
By Frank Connolly