Thursday 27 October 2016

€1.6bn Nama sale in North was 'sweetheart deal' of fraud and embezzlement, inquiry is told

Published 28/08/2015 | 02:30

The offices of Tughans solicitors
The offices of Tughans solicitors
Cllr Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
Deputy Mick Wallace

The €1.6bn sale of Nama's Project Eagle northern loan portfolio was "a sweetheart deal" involving embezzlement and fraud, a member of a parliamentary inquiry has claimed.

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Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir used privilege to describe the transaction - Nama's largest disposal of assets - as "a dirty scheme" involving possible kickbacks to politicians.

He made the remarks at a hearing of the Northern Assembly's committee on finance and personnel, which was taking evidence from the Law Society of Northern Ireland.

The society has been investigating the conduct of Belfast solicitor Ian Coulter, the former managing partner of Tughans, since it received a complaint from the law firm last January.

The UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) also launched an inquiry last month after it emerged that £7m (€9.6m) paid to Tughans in connection with the Nama deal had been moved to an account in the Isle of Man under the control of Mr Coulter.

Tughans acted as advisers to US vulture fund Cerberus, which bought the loan portfolio in April of last year, and a rival bidder Pimco.

Independent TD Mick Wallace alleged in the Dáil that the cash was destined for a northern politician or party, a claim denied by both Tughans and Mr Coulter.

Law Society chairperson Arleen Elliott told the committee yesterday that she was restricted from commenting on the specifics of its investigation, which is ongoing.

"If there was any inappropriate conduct by solicitors, it will be dealt with by us," she said.

Ms Elliott said the society had been warned in a phone call from a senior NCA officer just minutes before the hearing that it was not to say anything which could compromise the criminal investigation.

She agreed to speak only in general terms when specific questions about the society's investigation were put to her.

Ms Elliott told the committee it was a criminal offence for legal fees to be shared with someone who is not legally qualified.

She also said that all partners in a law firm would be responsible for client accounts, regardless of whether they personally controlled them or not.

"It is a matter of strict liability. So, for example, if there was client monies that went missing as a result of the activities of one partner, all partners are responsible, regardless of whether they had anything to do with it or not."

Several members of the committee expressed unhappiness with the society's refusal to answer certain questions.

Its chairman, Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay said it was dealing with "the biggest financial scandal we have ever seen in the North" and the law society's reputation was being affected.

His party colleague Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said the public interest outweighed the interests of the society.

"We are trying to investigate a deal in which we believe there were kickbacks. There was a sweetheart deal, embezzlement, fraud, a dirty scheme," he said.

"We are investigating it because it is alleged that at the heart of it were politicians benefiting."

Mr Ó Muilleoir questioned the rigorousness of the law society's investigation and why there was no indication of when it might conclude.

Meanwhile, loyalist figure Jamie Bryson has written to the committee, outlining evidence he wishes to give to its inquiry.

In a letter seen by the Irish Independent, Mr Bryson said he had information about taped telephone conversations involving a prominent business figure and a senior Northern politician.

He claims to have information on lobbying undertaken by political figures seeking "special treatment" for a number of named developers whose loans were in Project Eagle.

The committee is expected to consider the contents of Mr Bryson's letter before deciding whether or not to call him as a witness.

Irish Independent

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