Tuesday 20 March 2018

Robinson defends his meeting with Nama loan bidder

Stormont to hold emergency meeting

The North's First Minister Peter Robinson denied yesterday that he received any money related to Project Eagle (Brian Lawless/PA Wire)
The North's First Minister Peter Robinson denied yesterday that he received any money related to Project Eagle (Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

Peter Flanagan and Dearbhail McDonald

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has insisted he never received any payment in relation to a controversial sale of a portfolio of Nama loans.

Mr Robinson confirmed he had met representatives from the US investment firm Pimco when it was considering bidding for the portfolio of loans tied to Northern Ireland borrowers known as Project Eagle.

The portfolio, which had a par value of stg£4.5bn (€5.7bn) was sold by Nama for €1.6bn - a sizeable discount of 72pc - to another US investment firm, Cerberus Capital, in April 2014.

Last week, Independent TD Mick Wallace alleged that a routine audit of a legal firm involved in the process, Tughans of Belfast, revealed "£7m had ended up in an Isle of Man bank account… reportedly earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician". The £7m has since been retained by Tughans as part of its fees for its work.

Mr Robinson told the 'Irish News' newspaper that he could confirm: "I have not received, nor was I ever to receive any proceeds from Cerberus, Tughans, or anyone else in relation to the Nama sale."

Cerberus also vigorously denied making any improper payments in relation to the deal. Cerberus had retained international law firm Brown Rudnick as its advisor on the deal. Brown Rudnick hired Tughans for local expertise.

Cerberus said it "does not tolerate inappropriate actions" such as the ones alleged.

"Brown Rudnick informed us that they wanted to retain Tughans as a Northern Ireland based legal firm to supplement its work," it said, adding both firms were bound by the same standards.

Meanwhile, a group of debtors have instructed a London law firm to review the Nama sell-off of their loans and properties.

The group, including a number of property developers, met yesterday as the Northern Ireland Assembly's Finance Committee confirmed it will hold an emergency meeting today to discuss allegations surrounding some £7m (€9.8m) funds paid into an offshore bank account.

The money was in an account controlled by Ian Coulter, a former managing partner at Belfast law firm Tughans which acted indirectly for Cerberus, the US investment firm that bought Nama's Northern Ireland loan book.

However, it has emerged that another US firm, Pimco, withdrew from a prospective tender process to buy Project Eagle - after raising concerns with Nama about the role of certain third parties to Nama.

Pimco said it received an unsolicited approach from third parties to gauge potential interest in buying the Project Eagle portfolio and decided to withdraw from the tender process, not because of any Nama decision, but because of the concerns relating to the third parties that Pimco had identified as part of its due diligence checks.

Nama has confirmed that Pimco's compliance staff discovered that Pimco's proposed fee arrangement with US law firm Brown Rudnick also included the payment of fees to Tughans and to a former external member of Nama's Northern Ireland Advisory Committee (NIAC).

That external NIAC member was businessman Frank Cushnahan, who stepped down from the NIAC in November 2013.

The sale of Nama's Northern Ireland loan book is the biggest sale to date by the toxic loans agency and the biggest ever property deal in Ireland.

But the deal has been called into question by allegations, made under Dáil privilege by Mr Wallace, that a Northern Ireland politician or party stood to benefit from the sale of the Project Eagle portfolio.

Mr Wallace told the Dáil that the Isle of Man account had been discovered during a routine audit of Tughans, which is one of Northern Ireland's largest commercial practices.

Tughans has issued a statement saying a former partner, later named as Mr Coulter, diverted "professional fees" into an account without the knowledge of other partners.

The firm said it has retrieved the money and Mr Coulter has left the practice.

Cerberus has stressed it was not a client of Tughans and did not pay the firm and says that no improper fees were paid by the firm or on their behalf.

Tughans was retained by Brown Rudnick, which engaged with the law firm to assist locally in the transaction - for which an agreement was made to share the fee from Cerberus.

As well as the Stormont committee meeting, the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee will meet on Thursday to discuss the ongoing controversy.

Nama has been invited to appear before the PAC to discuss Mr Wallace's claims. Mr Wallace has also been invited to appear before the committee.

Last night, Nama said that the Tughan's issue was internal to it and had no relevance to Nama's open competitive sales process.

Irish Independent

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