Chasing the offshore assets of Ireland's former wealthy class
Any money salted away in trusts or hidden accounts by former property kingpins will be very difficult to trace and seize, writes Donal O'Donovan
Three years after the property collapse and there is still a widespread belief that many of those who benefited from the boom, and owed most when the plates stopped spinning, will never really see a poor day.
This week the issue was back into focus with news that the Revenue Commissioners are investigating thousands of offshore bank accounts, and NAMA is now advertising to recruit a team of forensic investigators to "verify and substantiate the credit standing of NAMA debtors".
While there is nothing to suggest that any person owing money to NAMA or any other bank has fraudulently hidden assets, it's a possibility that experts say needs to be considered in order to maximise the State's recovery of all the money it is owed.
The good news is that Ireland's former property kingpins are likely not to have deliberately set out to conceal their wealth, according to Andrew Wordsworth, of GPW, a specialist investigations firm in London. Wordsworth was a fund manager before switching sides to specialise in large scale international investigations into hidden assets.
"A classic fraudster knows someone will come looking for the money one day, they spend a lot of time and effort creating an impenetrable structure to obscure it. The Celtic Tiger guys and the Irish property entrepreneurs just don't fit that mould," he told the Irish Independent.
He says Irish property developers' belief in their own success makes them far more vulnerable in the hunt for assets.
"The Irish set up tax efficient private structures, not secret structures," he says.
"If you're trying to really hide something you never let anyone know you owned it in the first place. The Irish guys don't seem to have bothered with that," he says.
However, the use of offshore companies does make asset recovery much more difficult, especially if the bank accounts or companies are outside the European Union
"Wealth held abroad is very difficult to trace," says Rod Ensor, a solicitor and head of the corporate restructuring and insolvency law group at Matheson Ormsby Prentice.
"If someone has salted away money in trusts, or hidden accounts, it is going to be very difficult to uncover and seize. That will not please taxpayers but it's the reality," he says.
Even Wordsworth, who thinks that the bulk of the assets controlled by the Irish wealthy are traceable, says connecting the actual asset to the owner can still be a challenge.
"The structures aren't complicated but that doesn't mean governments are equipped to chase the assets. It's very specialised work.
The primary creditor in lots of these cases is the Irish Government which is proceeding in a very, very leisurely fashion," he says.
Wordsworth says the Irish agencies are painstakingly trying to unravel the tangled balls of string created by wealthy individuals instead of slicing through them.
"If you're smart you try to find the other end of the string and pull both ends. Find out where the yacht is, put a picture of it in front of the guy and make your demand," he says.
NAMA and the Irish banks are reluctant to proceed on that basis -- leaving them the slower at unravelling the ball.
So if money has been siphoned offshore -- where has it gone to?
Wordsworth says assets are more likely to be in London or Switzerland than in far flung tax havens or islands.
"The wealthy Irish guys all love London. They loved buying houses in London, loved doing deals in London, loved going to parties in London," he says.
The UK is a safe place to do business -- legally predictable, and home to sophisticated advisers used to managing lots of wealth.
"Look for the assets where the expertise is, where the rules are clear, where the wealth is safe. They might be owned through an offshore island but nobody in their right mind puts the actual assets offshore," he says.
As well as property, portfolios of shares and bonds are the most common forms of wealth he uncovers. Indeed, anti-money laundering legislation in the UK makes it easier for wealth to remain hidden while in plain sight.
In the UK any "suspicious" deal involving more than £10,000 in cash has to be notified to the financial authorities. By definition any large international transfer falls under the scope of this legislation.
"Deals like that are so common that entire rooms at the Serious Fraud Office are filled up with the paper records of transactions," says Wordsworth.
"The trail is there but there is just too much data to ever tackle and the priority is to chase drugs or terrorist-linked transfers," he says.
Rod Ensor says that when a debtor is insolvent and not honouring a debt, the best option is to bring bankruptcy proceeding.
"I'm amazed it hasn't happened. If you bankrupt any individual the mechanism is there to trace all of their assets wherever that may be," he says.
Failing to cooperate with a bankruptcy order, including non-disclosure of assets, can carry a jail sentence of up to five years.
However, the Irish courts cannot force non-European Union member states to reveal details of wealth held offshore.
That's not the only flaw in the formal procedures for asset recovery, according to Ensor.
Currently the estates of bankrupt individuals are managed by the state official assignee, a civil servant in the courts service working with a small team. His role is to recover any value from bankrupt estates and divide up whatever is recovered.
There is a real fear that launching a global trawl for hidden wealth is simply too much to ask of one small team working for the court service.
Creditors can vote to replace the official assignee, but only if they agree to finance their chosen replacement.
"It all gets very expensive then. If the court official is replaced, the creditors have to pay for their own candidate and basically have to finance the search for assets. If the State pays they are going to have to weigh up the costs associated with pursuing assets against what they think they can recover," Ensor says.
NAMA, the biggest creditor of wealthy developers say it is not sitting on its hands. It has already received agreement to reverse some property transfers that handed property to developers' wives.
This week it advertised for its own forensic investigators to beef up efforts to independently review data supplied by debtors. It seems the chase is finally on.