Thursday 14 December 2017

The boys from Nama are not knaves, just honest fools

Frank Daly and Brendan McDonagh
Frank Daly and Brendan McDonagh

Shane Ross

There are no knaves in Nama. Last Thursday, Nama chairman Frank Daly and his chief executive Brendan McDonagh were on the back foot. They fought successfully to persuade the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the murky payment of £7m (€9.7m) to an Isle of Man bank account after the sale of Nama's Northern Ireland loan portfolio was nothing to do with them.

They stated that the Nama board had forced US investment giant Pimco to withdraw from the bidding process once concerns about a potential conflict broke; Nama had not yielded to any political influence when selling the Northern Ireland loan portfolio for a song.

A clean sheet on the 'knaves' charge, maybe, but a public relations disaster on the 'fools' front.

The Nama team faced the PAC and headed straight for the moral high ground. They occupied it throughout the four-hour meeting, yielding nothing on the challenge to their integrity. On the downside, their cherished reputation for cold competence has been battered.

Last year's sale of Nama's Northern Ireland loan portfolio was a farce. The buyer, US company Cerberus, has walked away laughing. Nama stands accused of selling the taxpayer short.

Last week the evidence for the 'innocent fools' charge mounted by the hour.

Nama was selling its biggest property portfolio. Northern Ireland politicians were crawling all over the deal. Stormont Finance Minister Sammy Wilson had written to Michael Noonan about the interest of two investors introduced to him by US lawyers Brown Rudnick.

Wilson's chummy letter seeking "limited exclusivity" was headed "Dear Michael" and signed "Sammy". It received a frosty reply from Noonan. The Limerick man responded with a formal "Dear Minister Wilson" greeting, followed by a suggestion that he contact Nama direct and that Brown Rudnick "will be aware that the agency's policy in relation to loan sales . . . is that loans should be openly marketed".

He insisted that "granting exclusive access to one potential purchaser is not an approach that they favour as it militates against achieving optimal value".

So far, so good. And so, so proper. Sadly, it was all downhill after that. Within nine months a client of Brown Rudnick had walked away with Nama's entire Northern Ireland loan portfolio. Cerberus, the US winner of the tender, had wiped Nama's eye.

Nama's Northern Ireland portfolio came into play pretty quickly after Brown Rudnick's direct approach to Sammy Wilson and Nama itself.

A few months after the initial approach in November 2013, somewhat surprisingly a member of the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee of Nama resigned. Frank Cushnahan walked, citing family reasons. In November, he was working for Nama, Northern Ireland. Sixteen weeks later he re-emerged in a very different guise, wearing the stars-and-stripes T-shirt for the opposing US team.

Meanwhile, in December 2013 blood seems to have rushed to the heads of Frank Daly, Brendan McDonagh and company after Nama was approached directly by Brown Rudnick on behalf of US investment giant Pimco.

In January the Nama board decided to sell the entire portfolio of Northern Ireland loans in one lot, in an open competition. They swiftly appointed Lazards as advisers to promote 'Project Eagle'. The booty was on the block. Nine potential bidders were targeted. By March, three were chosen. Two of them, namely Cerberus and Pimco, were linked, at various points in the process, to Brown Rudnick. The same two were advised by Belfast solicitors Tughans. Quite a cosy coincidence. On Thursday, Frank Daly asserted that Cerberus only employed the two former advisers to rival bidder Pimco after Pimco had left the pitch.

Late in March, in the heat of the bidding process, a bombshell dropped. Pimco revealed to Nama that Nama's recently departed Northern Ireland Advisory Council member Frank Cushnahan had togged out for Pimco.

Worse than that, Frank, the man who left Nama for family reasons in November, popped up as the potential winner of a £5m sterling (€6.9m) 'acquisition fee' from Pimco, provided they landed the Nama loan book.

Nama did the honourable thing. They told Pimco to withdraw from the process. Pimco obliged. Cushnahan, a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) with useful political connections, presumably went back to his family nursing his wounds, muttering about the £5m sterling fee that never was.

Pimco's withdrawal meant the way was left open for the only two remaining runners. Cerberus picked up the pieces, easily making the higher bid.

Despite the strong smell of sulphur, Nama ploughed on fearlessly into the manure. Lazards advised them that there was still sufficient competition left in the contest.

Why did no one on the board of Nama cry "halt" instead of soldiering on, supported by the two wobbly pillars left in the bidding process. The result: they dumped the entire portfolio on lucky Cerberus.

Under questioning, both Daly and McDonagh stuck to their guns. They had achieved the best price possible. They were unapologetic. They constantly insisted that Nama had not been involved in any of the shenanigans. Nor had they.

Yet they seemed out of their depth. Did not the alarm bells ring loudly when they read the brazen letter from Brown Rudnick to Minister Sammy Wilson followed by his unorthodox approach to Noonan?

Surely this was an amber light? Did they not wonder why Frank Cushnahan had suddenly resigned? Were they not uneasy about the two big bidders using the same global and local advisers? Had they heard no rumours about Cushnahan having an office in Tughans' solicitors premises in Belfast?

And when they heard that Cushnahan was in line for a £5m 'finder's fee' for 'finding' Nama - a company to which he had been an important adviser a few months earlier - did they not feel foolish?

And yet, despite the alarm bells they struggled on. How could this gigantic deal be guaranteed a good result when it had been tainted by the involvement of one of Nama's former advisers? For some reason, they refused to pull the tender process.

The entire episode is now embroiled in conspiracy theories. Nama is in the thick of it. And, in a reflection of their addiction to secrecy, last Thursday they refused to give evidence to the Northern Ireland Finance Committee Inquiry, pleading that they were accountable to the PAC and to no one else. Despite being the sellers of the biggest property portfolio ever in Northern Ireland, they decided to take a partitionist stand. It is time for Michael Noonan to instruct them to take the train to Belfast.

Nobody has ever loved Nama. Until last week they were tolerated, but often dismissed as secretive mandarins, operating in the twilight zone. After a little light has been shone on their activities the revealed reality is worse than the old darkness. They are exposed as honest fools. The taxpayers have not been robbed, merely mugged.

Sunday Independent

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