Thursday 23 November 2017

'Extraordinary testimony' deepens controversy

Stormont committee chairman Daithi McKay
Stormont committee chairman Daithi McKay
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Businessman Gareth Graham's testimony at the Project Eagle inquiry was quite rightly described as "extraordinary" by Stormont committee chairman Daithi McKay.

After weeks of hearings which shed little light on matters surrounding the largest property deal in Irish history, the Belfast bookmaker well and truly put the cat among the pigeons.

He disclosed the existence of thousands of hours of phonecalls involving former Nama adviser Frank Cushnahan, a central figure in the unfolding controversy.

Although the calls predate the Project Eagle sale by several years, Mr Graham believes they are relevant as they help sketch out the relationship between Mr Cushnahan and various members of the North's legal, financial and political community.

Due to the terms of reference of the inquiry, Mr Graham was not able to go into too much detail about the content of the calls.

But he did say he would be handing the recordings over to law enforcement authorities. To this end he has already had discussions with the PSNI and the National Crime Agency, the UK equivalent of the FBI.

Both bodies have been investigating the Project Eagle sale since July, when allegations of planned political kickbacks first emerged. He has also made a complaint to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

"The sale of Project Eagle requires investigations by multiple agencies in multiple jurisdictions," he told the inquiry.

Mr Graham described Mr Cushnahan as "a very influential person", whose roles included senior positions in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

Mr Cushnahan was selected as an adviser to grow the Graham family's property and bookmaking businesses in 2005, but after a three-year association the relationship broke down. Initially there was no rancour involved.

But Mr Graham admitted this changed when he started listening to the telephone recordings. He said he wasn't sure he would now say hello to Mr Cushnahan if he met him in the street.

These calls have led to Mr Graham's belief that misfortunes which befell some of his companies can be traced directly back to Mr Cushnahan's appointment as an advisor to Nama.

Mr Graham strongly believes that borrowings he had with Bank of Ireland should never have been placed in Nama.

He blamed what he termed Mr Cushnahan's "malevolent influence" for this turn of events. And he hasn't prospered since those loans were sold on to Cerberus in the Project Eagle deal.

The investment company's approach was "ruthless, unjust and unreasonable" and he is now fighting to stave off the administration of two companies.

Mr Cushnahan has yet to comment on the tape allegations, but has firmly denied any wrongdoing in the Project Eagle deal.

Irish Independent

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