Nama debtors helped uncover £7m payment
A team of special investigators working for a group of disgruntled Nama debtors managed to trace the Stg£7m payment at the centre of the Northern Ireland loan sale scandal.
The Irish Independent has learned that businessmen hired a leading international legal firm to investigate the sale of the 'Project Eagle' portfolio for a huge discount to US investment firm Cerberus last year.
In the process, they uncovered the Stg£7m sum in an Isle of Man bank account, controlled by a Belfast solicitor.
It is the latest twist in the controversy which erupted last week, when Independent TD Mick Wallace claimed in the Dáil that the money had been earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or party.
Last night, sources close to the private investigation confirmed that the dossier in the hands of the businessmen contains allegations that the money was in fact earmarked to pay a "small group" of Northern politicians from two political parties.
The sources revealed that investigations have identified the names of up to four politicians from two Northern parties who, it is claimed, stood to be paid from the Isle of Man account.
"The enquiries carried out so far have thrown up the names of up to four politicians from political parties who we believe were due to be paid from the Stg£7m," said a source with knowledge of the investigation.
"There are a lot of people in the North very, very concerned about this matter and what is due to emerge in the coming weeks," said the source.
Stormont's First Minister Peter Robinson denied he had any involvement in the Nama sale, and maintained his family has been the victim of a witch hunt.
He maintained the interest of any minister involved in the sale was to get the best deal for Northern Ireland.
The Irish Independent can also reveal that the group of businessmen has also been in contact with the US Department of Justice, which has a foreign corrupt practices investigations unit, and will be handing over the information in their possession.
It is understood that the Nama debtors have known about the Isle of Man money since January. However, the background to the controversy dates back even further.
In April 2014, Nama agreed to sell the Northern loan book, comprising distressed loans on 850 properties once valued at over €5bn, for €1.6bn to international investment company Cerberus.
After the deal went through, Stg£7m was transferred to an account in the control of Ian Coulter, who had been the managing partner of Belfast law firm Tughans.
Tughans had acted for two bidders for the portfolio - firstly global investment firm Pimco, before it dropped out of the bidding process in March 2014; and subsequently, its rival and successful bidder, Cerberus.
Mr Coulter left the firm when an internal audit found that the fees had been diverted to the account. Nama said it was unaware of the £7m - and that it had nothing to do with the transaction.
The UK's National Crime Agency has launched a criminal investigation. The sale is set to be investigated by the State spending watchdog, the Comptroller & Auditor General.
Hearings are also planned by the Northern Assembly's finance committee, which has already drawn up a list of potential witnesses.
In the US, a spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment.
"As a matter of policy, we generally do not comment on whether a matter is under investigation, which would include whether or not a complaint has been made," he said.
The Dáil Public Accounts Committee was told by Nama's chairman that Finance Minister Michael Noonan did not object to the agency going ahead with the sale of the Northern Ireland loan book despite learning that it had run into controversy.
Former banker Frank Cushnahan, who had been a member of Nama's Northern Ireland Advisory Board, had stood to earn £5m in fees if one of the bidders, Pimco, was successful. In March 2014, Pimco informed the agency that it proposed to pay a success fee of £15m - which was to be split three ways to US law firm Brown Rudnick, Belfast firm Tughans, via its managing partner Ian Coulter, and Mr Cushnahan.
Mr Cushnahan resigned from the Nama board in November 2013 for "personal reasons".
Nama then excluded Pimco from the bidding process in March 2014. A month later, the deal was agreed with Cerberus, which was also represented by the same law firms, Brown Rudnick and Tughans.