Tuesday 20 March 2018

Coalition probes Siteserv sale as expert defends controversial €45m deal

Michael Noonan has announced a probe into the Siteserv sale
Michael Noonan has announced a probe into the Siteserv sale

Philip Ryan, John Downing and Niall O'Connor

The Government has been accused of avoiding a proper inquiry into the sale of the €45m Siteserv company until after the next election.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan announced a special review of the controversial €45m Siteserv sale and other "big transactions," worth over €10m, which were handled by IRBC bank which replaced the collapsed Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society.

The review will be carried out by special liquidators of IBRC, led by Kieran Wallace of KPMG, who officials said is well acquainted with the issues involved. A report is expected to be completed by August 31 and then passed to the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee which could pass it to the public spending watchdog, the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG).

The move by Mr Noonan is a clear effort to defuse three days of intense controversy which could pose serious problems for the Government, especially as they launch their economic 'Spring Statement' next week.

Opposition politicians are questioning whether taxpayers got value for money in the sale of companies which went bust owing vast sums to the former Anglo Irish Bank.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin again asked how the €45m sale of the building firm was made to the Millington firm, owned by businessman Denis O'Brien, at a loss to taxpayers of €105m.

He also asked how €5m was paid to shareholders of Siteserv when the company was bust and also pointed to serious concerns by Finance Department officials about the handling of the matter by IBRC bank.

But the expert who oversaw the deal says the €45m sale was the best value for the State. Walter Hobbs also said a €100m debt writedown was required due to the condition of the company's finances.

"The €100m was gone. The question was could we rescue the last €45m-€50m," he said.

Mr Hobbs said he recommended the sale to Millington to the IBRC.

"Pursuing any other route at this stage would be highly perilous," he wrote in a memo at the time.

Mr Hobbs also said the €5m payout to shareholders was necessary to get the sale approved and avoid the deal collapsing.

But Mr Martin said Mr Noonan had avoided taking action for two years - and the latest move merely continued that delaying process.

"This issue is not going away. It is causing genuine concern among the public and it demands a comprehensive response," Mr Martin said.

Independent TD Catherine Murphy said she could not accept the IBRC liquidator as "credibly independent" because they were involved in winding up the bank. She challenged Tánaiste Joan Burton to say whether she found the review process "independent and credible" as she had claimed.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said the proposal fell well short of what was required.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny admitted the C&AG could not probe the deal because the public spending watchdog did not have the powers.

C&AG Seamus McCarthy confirmed he lacked the necessary authority to examine the Siteserv sale.

Irish Independent

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