Saturday 25 November 2017

Developer Harry Crosbie lobbied Kenny in bid to stop theatre sale

'Inappropriate to influence Nama' - Noonan

REPRESENTATION: Property developer Harry Crosbie
REPRESENTATION: Property developer Harry Crosbie

Ronald Quinlan Special Correspondent

A last-ditch bid by developer Harry Crosbie to have Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Arts Minister Heather Humphreys intervene to prevent Nama's sale of his beloved Bord Gais Energy Theatre was met with strong objections from Finance Minister Michael Noonan, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Records obtained by this newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act have uncovered a flurry of emails between the private offices of Mr Kenny, Mr Noonan and Ms Humphreys between October and December of last year in which they discuss a written appeal for help that Mr Crosbie had sent some months earlier.

In his letter to the Arts Minister and the Taoiseach, the high-profile Dublin businessman said the sale of the Bord Gais Energy Theatre was "being forced by Nama because of events relating to the banking crash".

Those events had "nothing to do with the theatre, which was always a standalone business," Mr Crosbie added, noting that the venue "is currently owned by me and has been both a cultural and financial success from the day it opened".

The developer, who is widely acknowledged for his vision in the regeneration of Dublin's docklands, warned the Taoiseach and Minister Humphreys that the looming sale of the Bord Gais Energy Theatre "to the highest bidder will be viewed by future generations as a grievous error of judgement".

"Its sale will be regretted. It is not too late to stop it," he said.

Notwithstanding the urgency of the matter, Mr Crosbie's suggestion that the State step in and take a direct stake in the theatre's future didn't become the subject of internal correspondence between the offices of the Taoiseach and his ministers for another two months. By that stage however, the prized venue had already been sold for €28m to the former owners of Jurys Doyle hotels, the hugely-wealthy Dublin couple John and Bernie Gallagher.

On October 9 last - a full two weeks after the sale had been reported in the media, Finance Minister Michael Noonan wrote directly to Arts Minister Heather Humphreys setting out why it would have been "inappropriate" for him or his officials to "attempt to influence" Nama's decision over the sale of the theatre.

He said: "Nama cannot arbitrarily reduce the proceeds that a borrower would have otherwise secured on the sale of its collateral. If Nama did this, the borrower would rightly demand a reduction in their outstanding loan amount by the difference between the proceeds received in the directed sale and the proceeds that could have been achieved in an open market sale."

Such a decision, Mr Noonan said, "could result in Nama 'making up the difference' to its borrower".

He added that Section 10 of the Nama Act required the agency to maximise the return on its loans for the benefit of the taxpayer, and as such it could not compel either its borrowers or receivers appointed to any of the assets under its control to "cede property free of charge or at less than market value".

Mr Noonan concluded by reminding Ms Humphreys that under the anti-lobbying provisions of Section 221 of the Nama Act, it was an offence to communicate with the agency with the "intention of influencing the making of a decision in relation to the performance of its functions. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for me or my officials to attempt to influence commercial decisions of the agency," he said.

The records suggest the Taoiseach showed a renewed interest in the issue of the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on November 17 last when his office wrote to Mr Noonan's private secretary requesting a copy of the response which had been issued to the Arts Minister "for the Taoiseach's information".

Two weeks later, on December 2, 2014, Mr Kenny's private office wrote to the Arts Minister to ask if a response had been sent "directly" to Harry Crosbie on foot of Mr Noonan's letter.

Ms Humphreys' office replied to say that no reply had been sent to Mr Crosbie since his initial correspondence.

The Taoiseach's efforts to follow-up on the outcome of Mr Crosbie's representation isn't entirely surprising.

Elsewhere, the correspondence obtained by the Sunday Independent shows that Mr Kenny phoned the developer over the Christmas period in 2011.

The call was acknowledged by Mr Crosbie in January 2012 in a letter updating him on the progress of the proposed National Children's Hospital, on whose board he was serving as a member. He wrote: "Thank you for your call over the Christmas. Your encouragement and advice is invaluable and very much appreciated." Mr Crosbie signed off by saying: "Thank you again, your call meant a lot and was helpful in other quarters."

Sunday Independent

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