With friends like Breifne O'Brien, who needs enemies?
Victims of the conman are scrambling for their money and reeling from 'horrendous' betrayal, writes Maeve Sheehan
Published 01/02/2009 | 00:00
WHEN Breifne O'Brien married Fiona Nagle at a sophisticated wedding ceremony in Carrigrohane Castle in Cork in 2007, the debonair businessman showed gratitude for his good fortune. There were some people he wanted to thank, he told the assembled guests.
One person was singled out for particular praise: David Bell, a respected former High Court taxing master and octogenarian. Mr O'Brien, who had often sought his advice, thanked the elderly gentleman for all he had done through the many years they had known each other. At Mr O'Brien's invitation, the assembled guests then rose to their feet in a rousing standing ovation for the solicitor who had showed such kindness towards the groom.
One guest recalled the moving tribute in baffled dismay last week. While publicly lauding Mr Bell, Mr O'Brien was secretly ripping him off. Not only Mr Bell, but also his son, Paul, and several of the guests, old friends who warmly toasted his future happiness on that September afternoon, oblivious to the staggering betrayal.
For up to 15 years, O'Brien pillaged his friendships in search of suitable "investors" whom he could lure into what a High Court judge described as an unsophisticated "confidence trick". He allegedly persuaded them into putting up money for fictitious property deals, and kept them sweet with bogus dividends. If an investor wanted his money back, Mr O'Brien would persuade him to re-invest in some other dubious scheme. Otherwise, he would rummage amongst his friends for a fresh victim to put up funds, and from evidence heard in court, that victim was often a friend or someone introduced to him by a friend.
When last month he finally confessed his wrongdoing to a solicitor, he referred to them as "suckers" who were easy to pull in during the boom.
The scale of the deceit was not lost on Mr Justice Peter Kelly, who said it was "particularly odious" that his victims included not only his friends, but even the elderly father of one of them.
He has referred Mr O'Brien's case to the Garda Fraud Bureau and has granted judgements ordering him to repay €14.5m to nine victims. As gardai prepare to investigate Mr O'Brien, his friends are still reeling at the extraordinary duplicity of their old buddy.
Pondering on the deception last week, one friend remarked that it wasn't as if he didn't already move in a privileged world.
The son of a successful Cork businessman, he graduated from Trinity College in the mid Eighties with a degree in economics and social science and a large circle of well-heeled friends. Some, like David O'Reilly (owed €3.86m by Mr O'Brien) went on to have successful careers in finance and banking, earning the capital that Mr O'Brien would later target.
Mr O'Brien's career got off to a more modest start. He concentrated on running a
handful of dry-cleaning stores and laundrettes on Dublin's south side, one of which he set up while still a student. He also set up an ill-fated diner, Starvin' Marvin, in the early Nineties, which closed within a year. Evan Newell, a businessman from Rathgar, gave him some advice on running his fledgling operations. Mr O'Brien later repaid him by allegedly duping him out of €4.2m, promising to invest it in fictitious schemes.
His businesses expanded to include taxi firms in Blackrock and Dun Laoghaire and a convenience store.
These modest businesses were never going to make him the kind of money he aspired to, although ironically they may now provide the bread and butter for his family.
Why he apparently chose to con some of his closest friends in order to get rich remains a mystery. Surely it would have been easier to target people outside of his social circle. Or did he simply want to exploit the trust of friends whom he knew would never question his integrity?
Certainly few, if any, of his circle had reason to doubt him. One friend recalled a decent bloke, with a string of beautiful girlfriends, and a dry wit. He supped at their tables, entertained at dinner parties, went on skiing holidays and generally entertained.
"He was adored," said one friend last week.
Friends believed his wealth came from dabbling in various business deals, including a property transaction in Cork with his father, which he let on had netted him some serious money.
He also drew on another family connection to bolster his reputation. His sister Aoife married a wealthy Belgian businessman, Bernard Lambilliotte. The London-based Mr Lambilliotte lived the life to which Mr O'Brien back then could only aspire. The Belgian holds an MBA degree, and his career spans investment banking, investment management and setting up the investment firm Ecofin.
His company invested in the Irish green energy firm Airtricity before it was sold for €2.2bn last year. The sale generated millions for Airtricity investors. Mr O'Brien told friends that he too was an investor in Airtricity and had also made "a killing".
Daniel Maher, an old friend who took skiing holidays with Mr O'Brien, suggested this as one of the reasons his business acumen wasn't questioned. In an affidavit lodged in court, Mr Maher, who lives in Foxrock and is owed €450,000 by Mr O'Brien, said he was aware that the Cork investment seemed to provide Mr O'Brien with the funds to speculate, that he made a 'killing' on Airtricity shares, and that he had "dabbled" in stocks and shares.
David Bell had no reason to question Mr O'Brien's credentials either. According to one friend of O'Brien's, he often approached the older man for advice and help with legal matters and they became close, often going to rugby matches together.
Mr O'Brien, in turn, presented Mr Bell and his son with "business opportunities" they should invest in. When they got a return, he would urge them to re-invest, and so the cycle went on.
Mr Bell and his son are owed €1.1m. But it is the betrayal of the elderly man's trust and friendship which most rankles.
"He was in and out of David Bell's office very very frequently," said one man who knew Mr O'Brien. "The skulduggery of it is quite horrendous."
As years passed and his wealth grew, Mr O'Brien and his wife, Fiona Nagle, featured on social pages, dazzling readers with their taste in designer clothes, grand parties and the finer things in life. They bought a house on Silchester Road in Glenageary, built up an art collection worth €50,000, bought an Aston Martin worth €70,000, and properties in Ireland and abroad. She spoke of her preference for Chanel and Gucci. He indulged an expensive taste for suits and shoes.
"I would say his motive was living the life. In my view, he liked to be seen as Mr Big Shot," said the man. "I would say maybe there must have been a buzz in getting the money, be it from his friends."
According to an affidavit by a solicitor for the investors, O'Brien admitted to living a lie for at least 10 years. He allegedly admitted that he owed €16m-19m to about 11 people.
In addition to spending €4m of the money he'd be given on his personal and family lifestyle, he spent the same amount again to pay bogus profits to investors and another €4m keeping his businesses afloat. And he spent another €4m on property.
Evan Newell, who befriended Mr O'Brien after meeting him socially, invested €3.5m in June last year which he thought was going towards a German shopping centre.
It emerged in court that Mr O'Brien spent some €358,000 of it on a villa in the glamorous Sandy Lane resort in Barbados.
However, Mr O'Brien's precarious facade crumbled with the economy.
Late last year, investors clamoured for repayment and the pool of potential new victims ran dry. On December 12, Mr O'Brien was forced to confess his betrayal. That morning, he began telephoning his friends to tell them in was in "severe financial difficulty". According to one person who received the fateful call, his voice was "subdued" and his message brief: "contact my solicitor." Then he hung up.
In his affidavit, Louis Dowley told how he and his brother, Robert, both farmers in Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary, drove directly to Dublin that evening to confront him.
He had known Mr O'Brien for 10 years and entrusted him with €3m. When they challenged him, Mr O'Brien allegedly told them all their years of business dealings were a fraud and a scam and that they had been conned out of our money.
The financial loss was one thing. According to his friends, the personal betrayal felt by his victims was devastating.
Mr O'Brien, who claimed to be worth €36m, had hoped he could rely on his wealthy brother-in-law, Bernard Lambilliotte, to bail him out. Fat chance. Mr Lambilliotte began proceedings against Mr O'Brien last week, seeking the return of €1.8m, and signalling his clear distaste for his brother-in-law's activities. The case comes before the High Court tomorrow.
Summing up the case, Mr Justice Peter Kelly said: "The defendant directed his attractions at friends from school and university days, some going back 15 years. He exploited and abused the bonds of friendship for money and the whole scheme has now inevitably collapsed. When it did collapse, he accepted responsibility and today he has fallen on his sword."
After keeping his head down after the storm, Mr O'Brien turned up at a rugby match in Naas last week, to some surprise and anger.
His victims are now left scrabbling to save their finances, still waiting for Mr O'Brien to repay them.
One of the saddest elements of the whole debacle, according to one former friend of Mr O'Brien's, is that all the people he targeted were the decent ones.
"He seemed to single out down-to-earth people as his friends, and that eflected back on him, as if to show that he was a really honest, decent guy," she said. "I think a lot of those people now feel robbed of their integrity."