Wednesday 16 October 2019

Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe: High Court debt battle shows how this high-flying celebrity couple fell to Earth

Struggle: Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe have debts of €3.7m. Photo: David Conachy
Struggle: Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe have debts of €3.7m. Photo: David Conachy
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

He was the musical director of 'The Late Late Show' for two decades and she was the darling of Sunday evening television.

For many years, Frank McNamara and his wife Theresa Lowe were fixtures on our screens. Ms Lowe in particular, as presenter of the popular quiz show 'Where in the World' between 1989 and 1996, was a household name.

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Both would go on to pursue other interests. He worked as a musical conductor in the US, while she went to Kings Inns and became a barrister.

But somewhere along the line, things went awry for the high-flying celebrity couple.

Unpaid music royalties, property investments during the housing bubble, and a failed bid by Mr McNamara to become a TD led to financial difficulties.

What started as a trickle of small debt cases around a decade ago soon became quite serious and now the couple have debts of €3.7m.

Dáil run: Frank McNamara with Mary Harney, leader of the Progressive Democrats, ahead of his failed election bid in 2007. Photo: Maxpix
Dáil run: Frank McNamara with Mary Harney, leader of the Progressive Democrats, ahead of his failed election bid in 2007. Photo: Maxpix

Next week, lawyers acting on their behalf will argue that around €2.9m of this debt should be written off under a proposed personal insolvency arrangement. This is a mechanism introduced following the financial crash that allows for the restructuring of secured debts up to €3m for people who cannot pay.

However, it is by no means certain the deal, devised by personal insolvency practitioner James Green, will be approved by the High Court.

The couple's barrister, Keith Farry, has argued creditors would fare better under the personal insolvency arrangement than if the couple were made bankrupt. However, their main creditor, American vulture fund Tanager, is opposed to the proposal, which would see more than €1.7m it is owed being written off.

Tanager, which is owned by US private equity group Apollo Global Management, has already had three largely procedural objections rejected by the court.

One required a full hearing and a written judgment, delivered last December, by Mr Justice Denis McDonald.

A fourth objection, that not enough creditors are in favour of the proposal, still has to be ruled on by the judge, who will hear submissions on Monday.

The mortgage on the couple's family home near Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, was part of a tranche of loans bought by the fund from Bank of Scotland (Ireland) in 2014.

Mr McNamara (59) and Ms Lowe (56), who have two dependant children, have debts of €2.3m secured against the four-bedroom house, which is currently worth around €500,000.

Under the proposed deal, they would make a lump sum payment of €100,000 towards a new written-down mortgage of €550,000. Some of the cash will come from a €181,000 inheritance from Mr McNamara's parents' estate, while €30,000 has been pledged from a life assurance policy that is set to mature in seven years. Money will also be raised from the sale of land next to their home.

A feature of the case is the hard-nosed attitude adopted by the vulture fund. In court filings, it says the proposed arrangement is not a "product" it offers at present "in the ordinary course of its business".

The "suite of options" offered to debtors include mortgage to rent, voluntary sale or surrender or a debt purchase offer, but not what is being proposed in the personal insolvency arrangement.

Tanager says the only circumstance in which it is willing to write a debt down to the market value of a property is where the home is either surrendered or voluntarily sold.

This policy, it says, ensures the true market value of the property is achieved.

However, it would also see Mr McNamara and Ms Lowe losing their family home.

Mr Farry told the court earlier this week that Tanager was not interested in long-term structuring of debts and seemed to want bankruptcy for his clients. He said the fund's strategy was to realise the debt in as short a period as possible and that Tanager "don't do forbearance".

Mr McNamara did not want to comment when contacted by the Irish Independent.

Publicly available records show the couple's financial woes began to manifest themselves in the courts a decade ago. Land registry records indicate the couple bought four residential investment properties in Dublin in 2004.

Five years later, the management company for one of those properties secured a judgment against them for an unpaid bill.

Two further judgments were secured by management companies in 2010. The sums involved were small, ranging between €1,721 and €3,219.

A year later Eircom pursued Mr McNamara for an unpaid debt and secured a judgment against him for just €2,075, while another management firm secured a judgement for €5,256 against him.

A number of judgment mortgages were also registered against Mr McNamara's interest in the family home, including one by Permanent TSB and one by a car and consumer loan company. The sums involved are not recorded.

Earlier this week, Mr Justice McDonald was told the couple remortgaged and sold properties in a bid to escape what they saw at the time as temporary financial difficulties.

The judge was told the financial problems stemmed from a number of issues.

These included a claim by Mr McNamara that he is owed over $1.2m (€1m) for his work as a composer and conductor. The debt is said to date back 16 years.

Mr Justice McDonald heard that when the recession hit, Mr McNamara could no longer afford to travel to the US as orchestras there were unable to continue paying travel and accommodation expenses.

The judge was also told a failed attempt at election to the Dáil added to the financial difficulties. Mr McNamara ran as a candidate for the Progressive Democrats in Dublin South Central in 2007, but secured just 474 votes.

Despite their financial woes, the couple clearly have an eye on the future.

Last December they set up a company called Theresa Lowe Communications to provide media training, public speaking and executive development courses. Both are involved in providing the courses.

Under the proposed debt deal, the couple would have to work well past normal retirement age.

Irish Independent

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