The late Brian Lenihan appointed advisor at centre of Nama controversy
THE late former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan appointed a controversial businessman to a Nama advisory role after being lobbied by his counterpart in the North.
A parliamentary inquiry heard how Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson pressed Mr Lenihan to appoint former banker Frank Cushnahan to a committee advising the State bad bank.
Mr Cushnahan’s involvement in the sale of Nama’s northern loan book is currently under scrutiny following revelations he stood to earn Stg£5m had one bidder, global investment firm Pimco, been successful.
Pimco was asked to withdraw from the race by Nama after Mr Cushnahan’s involvement became known and the loan book, codenamed Project Eagle, was subsequently sold to rival bidder Cerberus for €1.6bn.
An inquiry by the Northern Assembly’s committee for finance and personnel was told Mr Wilson had initially sought to have a northern representative appointed to Nama’s board.
But when this was ruled out by Mr Lenihan, an advisory committee was set up as a compromise arrangement.
Documents disclosed to the committee by the North’s Department of Finance and Personnel reveal Mr Wilson wrote to Mr Lenihan in November 2009 proposing the appointment of Mr Cushnahan, senior civil servant Richard Pengelly, and another unidentified individual to the advisory group.
Of the three on Mr Wilson’s list only Mr Cushnahan was appointed by Mr Lenihan.
Mr Cushnahan remained on the committee until November 2013, when he resigned for personal reasons. The Project Eagle sale happened five months later.
“The decision about who sat on the advisory committee was a matter for the finance minister in the Irish Government,” David Sterling, the department’s permanent secretary, told an inquiry hearing in Stormont.
“The purpose of the advisory committee was to allow Nama to be given a better understanding about the circumstances in Northern Ireland that were affecting the business community, the economy as a whole, and indeed some of the issues affecting the borrowers who had assets that were held by Nama.”
It also emerged during the hearing that the department had been unable to locate minutes for a number of meetings between Mr Wilson and Nama representatives.
Mr Wilson is set to be called before the committee in the coming weeks.
Mr Sterling declined to answer several questions during the hearing, citing legal advice.
These included a question about the level of knowledge his department had about a meeting between the North’s First Minister Peter Robinson and the former US vice-president Dan Quayle, who now works for Cerberus.
Mr Sterling said he did not want to prejudice an ongoing criminal investigation and that he would prefer to respond to certain queries at a later stage in writing.
Committee chairman Daithi McKay expressed unhappiness with some of Mr Sterling’s responses and said he expected him to return in a fortnight with answers to members’ questions.
The PSNI and the UK’s National Crime Agency is investigating allegations made in the Dail by Independent TD Mick Wallace in relation to the Project Eagle sale.
These include the disclosure that Stg£7.5m was in the Isle of Man bank account of Belfast solicitor Ian Coulter, who represented both Pimco and Cerberus.
Mr Wallace alleged the money was earmarked for a Northern politician or party.
This has been denied by Mr Coulter. He has also denied any impropriety and pledged to cooperate with the police investigation.
Nama has refused to attend the Stormont hearings, saying it is not answerable to committees outside the Oireachtas.
The committee wrote to Finance Minister Michael Noonan last week asking him to ensure Nama attended hearings, but Mr McKay said it had received no response.
Speaking in Dublin, Mr Noonan said he could not compel Nama to attend.
“I have no legal authority to request Nama to appear before any forum outside of the jurisdiction,” he said.
“Nama under law are obliged to be accountable to the Oireachtas through the Public Accounts Committee and to appear in any other forum would be in breach of that.
“But Nama are quite willing to answer any questions that are considered relevant by the Northern Ireland finance committee.”