Sunday 21 December 2014

The fall of King Con

Breifne O'Brien appeared to have all the trappings of success -- a glamorous wife, a beautiful home, a string of properties and an Aston Martin. But his life of luxury was built on deceit. Over 15 years, he duped his oldest and closest friends into ploughing e18m into his bogus investment schemes. As the investigation into his scam continues, Maeve Sheehan recalls the day the deluded charmer finally admitted the game was up

Breifne O'Brien appeared to have all the trappings of success — a glamorous wife, a beautiful home, a string of properties and an Aston Martin. But his life of luxury was built on deceit. Over 15 years, he duped his oldest and closest friends into ploughing €18m into his bogus investment scheme
Breifne O'Brien appeared to have all the trappings of success — a glamorous wife, a beautiful home, a string of properties

THREE years ago this month, Breifne O'Brien took a flight from New York bound for Dublin and certain ruin. For 15 years, he had played the part of an investment guru, deploying his easy charm and debonair manner to dupe his friends into investing €18m in his bogus schemes.

Much of it went on shoring up the lifestyle to which he and his glamorous wife Fiona Nagle had become accustomed: a villa in Barbados, skiing holidays, the usual chic trappings of an affluent Celtic Tiger couple. The global credit crunch forced him out, like pus from a lanced boil.

New York was O'Brien's last desperate attempt to dig himself out of a hole, a plea to his wealthy financier brother-in-law Bernard Lambilliotte to stump up the cash to pay the investors who clamoured for their money back. He boarded the plane empty-handed. The game was up.

It was December 12, 2008, a Friday morning. Peter O'Reilly had waited anxiously at Dublin Airport since 5am that morning for O'Brien's plane to land. O'Reilly, a financial adviser, was an old friend of O'Brien's since their Trinity College days. Three of his clients invested €1.5m in O'Brien's schemes. O'Reilly had been trying to get their money back for days. Alarmingly, O'Brien had left a message to say he had "mistakenly" transferred it to his brother-in-law's bank account and was on his way to New York to sort it out. O'Reilly panicked. O'Brien wouldn't answer his phone so O'Reilly found out from his secretary when he was due back.

Two New York flights landed with no sign of O'Brien. He had somehow slipped through. O'Reilly was driving across the city to seek him out in his south Dublin bolthole when elusive O'Brien finally called: "All he said was that he was in deep financial difficulties and to talk to his solicitor... then he hung up," O'Reilly later wrote in an email to his business partner.

Down on his Tipperary farm, another of O'Brien's old friends, Louis Dowley, was oblivious to the looming financial disaster until his phone rang at 10.30am. It was O'Brien, calm and low-voiced, saying he was in financial difficulty. He told Dowley to contact his solicitor and hung up.

Like O'Reilly, Louis and his brother Robert had known O'Brien for more than 20 years. They went to rugby matches, parties, weddings and christenings together. They also had more than €3m tied up in O'Brien's schemes. They drove straight to Dublin. It was getting dark when they reached Invergarry, the grand Victorian home on Silchester Road in Glenageary which O'Brien shared with Fiona Nagle, her two children from her first marriage and three of their own.

The Dowleys were shown into the living room. O'Brien was sitting down, apparently distraught, cradling his head in his hands. He confirmed the worst: the money was gone. The more the brothers vented their anger, the more he bowed his head in anguish. With characteristic delusion, O'Brien tried to convince them that he could still get their money back.

Fiona, who has said she was unaware of her husband's activities, wasn't there when the Dowley's arrived. She later opened the front door, ashen-faced, to another old college friend, David O'Reilly. He too had money tied up: about €3.6m. O'Reilly showed up after getting the same brief, but loaded, voicemail as the others.

A funereal air hung around the period house. A kitchen extension, reputed to have cost €1.5m, was still under construction, a jarring reminder of O'Brien's extravagance at their expense. A new bespoke kitchen had arrived just that day, still boxed up and waiting to be installed. The company that supplied it later had to go court to try to get paid.

The events of that day are no doubt seared on the brains of those involved. It was the day life changed utterly for O'Brien, his wife and his family, while his friends were just waking up to the fact that they'd been had.

A lot has happened to Breifne O'Brien, now 50, in the intervening three years but being called to account for his outrageous deception isn't one of them.

He is, however, separated from his wife; being sued for about €18m by 11 people, including his brother-in-law and seven once-close friends. His myriad properties are in hock to the banks. His accounts have been frozen and he is under investigation by the National Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation. He has been dropped like a hot stone from his social circle and his name is mud.

He was arrested last summer, but the investigation isn't finished yet. Detectives have taken 80 witness statements; some of them run to more than 80 pages.

He comes from an affluent family in Cork. His father Leo is a successful businessman. The family home is Carrigrohane Castle, a centuries-old pile overlooking the River Lee. He was handsome, popular with an easy and charming manner. He had a big circle of friends and a string of pretty girlfriends before he settled down with Fiona.

He was far from a high-flier when he left Trinity College in the mid-Eighties with a degree in economics and social science. Most of the friends he duped out of money were more successful than he was, going on to have genuine financial careers.

Sweep aside the false facade of wealth, and all O'Brien legitimately had to his name was a couple of launderettes, shops and a taxi company, Blackrock Taxis Ltd, in Sandyford industrial estate.

Sunday Indo Living

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