Wednesday 21 February 2018

Law firm’s 15-day delay in reporting Nama case

The Treasury Building on Grand Canal Street Lower where NAMA is based. Photo: Tom Burke
The Treasury Building on Grand Canal Street Lower where NAMA is based. Photo: Tom Burke
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The law firm whose former managing partner is at the centre of investigations into the €1.6bn sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland loan portfolio delayed contacting regulators until a fortnight after his resignation, the Irish Independent has learned.

Company records indicate that Ian Coulter resigned from the Belfast law firm Tughans a full 15 days before the Law Society of Northern Ireland was contacted about his alleged conduct.

According to Tughans, Mr Coulter stepped down after other partners had discovered that he had diverted £7.5m (€10.25m) in legal fees to an offshore account without their knowledge.

A document filed with Companies House shows that Mr Coulter ceased being a director of a company associated with the Tughans partnership on January 12.

A parliamentary inquiry into the €1.6bn sale of the Project Eagle loan portfolio heard last week that Tughans first contacted the Law Society of Northern Ireland about the alleged conduct of Mr Coulter on January 27.

The disclosure raises questions about the law firm’s reaction to the matter and why it did not contact the regulator sooner.

When the referral was finally made to the Law Society, it took the matter so seriously that it launched an immediate investigation. That probe is ongoing.

Neither Tughans nor Mr Coulter have previously disclosed the exact date of his departure.

When contacted by the Irish Independent, Tughans declined to comment on its delay in going to the Law Society.

However, a source close to the law firm insisted that it had acted “as promptly as it possibly could”.

This newspaper understands that the delay was partly due to the law firm making arrangement for clients to have their portfolios transferred to other partners. Expert advice is also believed to have been sought from legal counsel before the Law Society was contacted.

Mr Coulter has been at the centre of controversy ever since Independent TD Mick Wallace told the Dáil that £7m in an Isle of Man bank account had been “earmarked” for a northern politician or party in connection with the Project Eagle deal.

Mr Coulter subsequently confirmed that £7.5m had been transferred from Tughans to an “external account” on his instruction last September.

The cash was a portion of the fees that Tughans had shared with US law firm Brown Rudnick for work done on the Nama deal on behalf of the winning bidders, the New York-based vulture fund Cerberus.

In his only statement to date on the issue, Mr Coulter denied any wrongdoing. He claimed the reasons for the transfer were complex and commercially and legally sensitive. He said he would explain these reasons to “the appropriate authorities”.

Mr Coulter said the money was transferred back to Tughans in early December and that discussions “to resolve the matter” took place between November and his eventual resignation in January.

The Law Society probe is one of four investigations into the Project Eagle sale.

Other investigations have been launched by the UK’s National Crime Agency, the Northern Assembly’s committee on finance and personnel and the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee.

Irish Independent

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