Wednesday 19 June 2019

Nama in fresh crisis over North loan sale

Inquiry: Frank Cushnahan has denied any wrongdoing
Inquiry: Frank Cushnahan has denied any wrongdoing

Ronald Quinlan and Gavin McLoughlin

The controversy surrounding businessman Frank Cushnahan's alleged conduct in Nama's €1.6bn Project Eagle deal has deepened.

An investigation by the Sunday Independent has established that both Mr Cushnahan, a former member of Nama's Northern Ireland Advisory Committee (NIAC), and Nama's then head of asset recovery, Ronnie Hanna, met with a potential bidder for the agency's Northern Ireland loan book in December 2012 - a full 12 months before Nama formally announced its sale.

The meeting was held in the offices of Tughans solicitors in Belfast and involved a presentation from Michael George, the managing director of US private equity giant Fortress Investment Group, in which he outlined his company's financial strength and experience. Following this, it is understood a general conversation ensued between those present in relation to the potential opportunities presented by Nama's Northern Ireland loan book.

While a source familiar with the matter described the December 2012 meeting as "informal in nature", the mere fact that it took place will invariably serve to deepen the pressure on Mr Cushnahan to explain his alleged conduct in the lead up to Nama's ultimate sale of Project Eagle to US private equity fund Cerberus.

It is understood Fortress had two further "casual contacts by phone" with accountant David Watters between the December 2012 meeting and March 2013 about the potential for investing in Nama's Northern Ireland loan book.

These contacts came to nothing, according to the same source, who expressed their "deep frustration" that Fortress was being dragged into a controversy in which it had "absolutely no involvement".

Contacted by the Sunday Independent, a spokesman for Fortress Investment Group declined to comment on its managing director Michael George's meeting in December 2012 with Mr Cushnahan and Mr Hanna.

Asked if Nama had been aware that this meeting had taken place, and if Mr Cushnahan and Mr Hanna had been acting with its authority, a Nama spokesman said: "Nama has nothing further to add to the extensive information it has already provided on the Project Eagle sales process."

Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding Cerberus' acquisition of Nama's Northern Ireland portfolio remain the subject of investigation by both the UK's National Crime Agency and the US Securities and Exchange Commission as well as a parliamentary inquiry in Northern Ireland.

That investigation took a dramatic turn last week after a BBC Spotlight programme broadcast a covert recording of Mr Cushnahan appearing to admit he had been in line for a fee from the €1.6bn Project Eagle deal.

Responding to the programme's potentially explosive content, a spokesman for Cerberus reiterated its position that it had never paid for or sought advice from Mr Cushnahan when acquiring Nama's Northern Ireland loan portfolio. "To the best of our knowledge, no improper or illegal fees were paid by us or on our behalf," he added.

In acquiring Project Eagle, Cerberus found itself pitched against just one rival bidder, Fortress, after another US fund, Pimco, withdrew, citing concerns raised by its compliance department, which it said had detected a request for a £15m success fee to be divided up between three parties - the US law firm Brown Rudnick, the Belfast-based solicitors Tughans and Frank Cushnahan.

Mr Cushnahan has consistently denied wrongdoing in relation to his dealings with Nama.

Sunday Independent

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