News Irish News

Sunday 24 September 2017

'I gave the Exchequer €350m in taxes – my debt to State is paid'

Ulster Bank forced my hand in filing for bankruptcy and the message of my 25-year career is that if you invest and live in Ireland you are a fool and will be subject to attacks, says Sean Dunne

I can confirm that I filed for bankruptcy on Friday in Connecticut. Good Friday was an appropriate day for me, as both Nama and Ulster Bank, my two main creditors, are well aware I have no assets, and their game is the game of persecution, with no commercial logic. At least now I have the pain of certainty rather than the uncertainty of pain. Unlike Jesus, I don't expect to rise again in three days, but certainly hope to make great strides within the next three years, debt free with a clean slate and with my fate back in my own hands.

I had not planned on filing for bankruptcy, I did not see much point as I have no assets left to distribute among the banks I owe money to. Ulster Bank forced me into this position by applying to make me bankrupt in Ireland. Regrettably, I do not live in Ireland any more. I was forced and indeed advised to take matters into my own hands in the USA, where I reside and work, where my family lives, contrary to what Ulster Bank claimed when they made their application in the High Court, in the highest profile court room of the day, where the Denis O'Brien/Daily Mail defamation case was being heard. I had to hear about Ulster Bank's application through the media because Ulster Bank did not have the brains or courtesy to contact my Irish solicitor and tell him they wanted to take such proceedings. Of course, what's the point of Ulster bank taking such proceedings unless they can turn it into a PR stunt?

MY DEBTS

While Nama have a judgement against me for €184m due to personal guarantees, this fails to recognise the returns that they will earn from the valuable properties that they took into receivership. Coupled with this fact is the personal taxes I paid in Ireland, the levies and employment generated on the construction of over 3,500 houses, along with all the major development in which I was involved, I consider my debt to the Irish State to be cleared. Attached is a copy of my personal tax returns from 2006, one example of the many personal tax bills I paid in Ireland over the years. I have paid close on €100m in personal taxes to the Irish State, outside of company taxes and the substantial levies. I estimate that I employed over 200 people annually over a 25-year period in the Irish economy and contributed €250m to the Irish Exchequer. Therefore, I am personally happy that my debt to the Irish State is clear.

Some do find it ironic that those who paid their taxes, invested in the Irish economy and lost their shirts as a result are now pariahs. This conveys the message that if you invest and live in Ireland you are a fool and will eventually be the subject of attack. If you leave Ireland, invest elsewhere and pay tax elsewhere you are not just a really clever business man, you are a hero. The sum total of this message: do not invest in Ireland. As long as this message permeates, I do not know how the country is going to recover.

From the first 20 houses I built in Sallynoggin to the 1,400 houses constructed in Charlesland my company has never had an issue with complying with the appropriate building standards and always sought to exceed them. All levies were paid on every site we developed and every development was completed to the required taking-in-charge standard despite the fact that some local authorities prevaricated and took up to 10 years to take on their responsibility and liability for looking after developments we and other developers had long finished and sold on.

I am not in a position to pass judgement on other developers or business people regarding their borrowings but in my own case I provided equity into every deal I did to make my loan-to-value ratio 50 per cent.

In 2005, when I bought the Jurys and then Berkeley Court site, it is now incomprehensible to believe that Ulster Bank held a special credit committee meeting and within 24 hours provided a letter confirming that they would finance the purchase price with a loan of €275m, I provided the remaining €125m, and personal guarantees of €120m. What people may also forget is that in 2007 that seven-acre parcel of land was valued by Lisney on behalf of the banks at €525m, an increase in value in less than two years of €150m.

While I was prepared for a fall in property prices, I never imagined that they could possibly fall so low that my 50 per cent equity in my property portfolio would be wiped out and end up with my PGs (personal guarantees) being called in. It was simply not conceivable.

The idea that the Irish taxpayer would then be made liable for developers' and bank debts was equally incomprehensible and beyond anyone's worst nightmare. I regret any involvement I have had in making life difficult financially for any Irish resident. I have always loved, and been loyal to, my country. I appreciate the free education I received here and I always wanted to play a positive role in Ireland.

I am truly sorry that any decisions I made contributed to any Irish person's economic woes. I am not in the blame game but we all now know that the entire financial systems of Ireland and the world imploded. While often labelled gamblers and speculators, as a builder my raw material is land, and we cannot function without it. For me, it was not about turning a quick buck, it was about building quality homes and buildings from scratch that would stand the test of time. I could have sold the Jurys Berkeley Court site in 2007 for a huge profit. I had plenty of offers, and that is what speculators would have done. But I wanted to create and develop something important, change the landscape of that area for the better. I had a vision, as did the many talented people who worked on developing the Jurys plans. We were totally committed to building something special and iconic, with all the economic plusses that go with such an ambitious project for the wider economy.

While I lost that battle I sometimes think that if you put all the planning objectors together, they did not pay the tax I paid in 2006.

Nama and Ulster Bank

For Nama and Ulster Bank, the infliction of pain is more important than getting money back. They have no compunction about wasting their shareholders' money on what they consider will divert attention away from their own failings. Both of these banks have me on a Wanted List, and like the Americans in Iraq, Sean Dunne is the Ace of Spades. They clearly are trying to deflect from their own incompetence and bad decisions by pursuing developers like me through hell and high water.

They are determined to get me, and their determination has blinded any commercial logic to their actions. Other banks have had a far more sensible approach where they know you cannot get blood out of a stone and are not willing to waste their money pursuing genuine debtors who come unstuck. It is unfortunate that those footing the bill for these vendettas are the Irish and British taxpayer. It is also personally disturbing for me that they are pursuing innocent third parties who do not owe, and have never owed, them a penny purely because they are associated with me. The banks seem to think that this kind of behaviour will win them kudos with the Irish public. I genuinely do not believe and never have believed the Irish people are that gullible. Given our history, we are just not that susceptible to propaganda and do not accept what the establishment tells us without some cynicism.

Ulster Bank

In 2009 I negotiated a deal with Ulster Bank to run the D4 Hotel operation to December 31, 2011, and undertook to deliver planning which I successfully did. My reward for delivering planning and devoting my time, knowledge and skill along with some key Mountbrook staff was to be the return of surplus rent of €1.25m per annum which was paid from the profits generated from the hotels. Planning was delivered in September 2011 and Ulster Bank reneged on the deal and refused to pay me, Mountbrook staff and even left the architects short of their fees by confiscating the money and subsequently liquidating the company.

On the one hand, Ulster Bank expect me to pay them back money borrowed for property development, yet they dishonour their own obligations to pay me and others, and binding agreements they themselves created.

Ulster Bank, like Nama, are also suffering from blurred vision in that they fail to distinguish between me and my wife Gayle as separate entities who own separate corporate structures and assets. The last time I saw her, she did not weigh 200 pounds and have grey hair and stubble. Gayle was never a debtor, director, shareholder or guarantor, nor indeed were any of my adult children, of any of my debts or business dealings. In fact, they had zero to do with my businesses and related borrowings. But chasing one of the poster boys of the property bust and his wife is their idea of a new blood sport.

In 2007, when Jurys and the Berkeley Court closed I took it upon myself to reopen the hotels because I felt that it was better for the area and economy that over 200 people would be employed pending future development of the site rather than looking at empty buildings deteriorating. Ulster Bank, in their blurred wisdom, refused to finance the reopening of the hotels. I financed that on my own.

According to recent reports those hotels generate in excess of €4.5m in profits for the banks that own them. The D4 Hotel operation was a success and today thanks to our hard work and devotion is an income generator for Ulster Bank, and a major employer. We did the best we could in a bad situation. Up until 2011 my relationship with Ulster Bank was positive, I thought we would work out our debts with them on a sensible and consensual basis. When they got out of me what they required – planning for D4 hotels and a successful hotel business – they turned on me. As a High Court judge put it recently, banks are quick to chase debtors but slow to pay their own debts.

Nama

When Nama was established it was trumpeted as a bailout for builders. While I did not think that was necessarily the case, I was reasonably confident that I could work with Nama to work out my property portfolio. I had already come to practical terms of agreement with my other banks. I spent three months working hard on a business plan which clearly identified an exit strategy realising the maximum return on my assets for the Irish State and sought zero compensation for being prepared to work out the assets over an eight-year period. I was open to making any changes to that business plan Nama required, but I was in the dark as to what they needed and required because they gave no guidance.

I have recently discovered that Nama, within six weeks of receiving my business plan, had effectively decided on November 30, 2010, to put me into receivership and to pursue non-debtor members of my family, including Gayle and my three adult children, through any means possible in order to rape their finances in an effort to pay off my debts. They deliberately delayed informing me of their decision until they made every effort to get a statement of net worth off my wife and children. Nama even claimed it was my obligation to procure such statements from four adults with zero to do with my business. If I could not do this I was to be deemed "uncooperative"!

I believe that US proceedings now being taken are the latest attempt by Nama to extract such a net worth statement.

I now know from documents I have seen, that if Gayle and my adult children had provided them with a statement of net worth, and agreed to hand over all of their assets to Nama to be used to pay off my debts, they would have worked with me. Nama's own internal working papers acknowledged that neither Gayle nor my children had any legal obligations to Nama, yet they still state on that date in November 2010 that their primary goal was to achieve the reversal of all assets in Gayle or my children's name, regardless of when it happened, how wealthy I was at the time of any transfers or how much consideration was paid. The whole basis of the Nama approach is not just unlawful, but shows the willingness of an arm of the State to harass, bully and intimidate non-Nama debtors by taking vexatious legal cases against them when they do not capitulate to Nama demands. It's vexatious litigation, harassment by an arm of the State, it is a disgrace. Having observed their modus operandi I thank the Lord every day that I never have to sit in the same room with any of them again – unless it has to be a court room.

I myself was pleasantly surprised to discover I was debtor Number 39 with Nama. Little would the Irish people appreciate from the amount of publicity that attached to me and some of my developments that there were 38 developers who had substantially more borrowings than I with Irish banks. It is, however, not lost on me that many of the "chosen" developers that Nama have decided to work with are likely to end up with substantially greater debts than mine to the Irish taxpayer. I wish my former fellow developers best wishes, and would never wish to be in their shoes or trade places with them today.

Court case in USA

It is also very disconcerting to discover from documents handed over by Nama in the course of the legal case they initiated in the US, that Nama has developed a cosy relationship with a British tabloid newspaper. It does not appear to bother Nama that this newspaper publishes stories on me and my family on a regular basis. Nama CEO Brendan McDonagh seems to spend a great deal of time monitoring the media, and giving his attention to crank letters he receives from 'Nama informers' about developers such as myself. These informers have no information based on fact or truth.

Nama should be obliged to read the Irish Constitution. Everyone has their constitutional rights.

The Future

In answer to your question where do I go from here,

"We only get to walk the fairways of life once, and while I am 58 years old, I feel like 48, think like 38 and thankfully sometimes l get to act like I am 28."

If life is equated to a game of golf, I feel I still have the back nine to play.

I have a sign in my office that reads:

"In the end everything will be ok. If it's not ok, it's not the end."

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News