Sunday 21 January 2018

Rise and spectacular downfall of a conman who preyed on friends

Breifne O'Brien looked like a wealthy businessman but it was all fantasy, writes Maeve Sheehan

THAT WAS THEN: Fiona Nagle and Breifne O'Brien at a function in the Berkeley Court Hotel, Dublin in 2002
THAT WAS THEN: Fiona Nagle and Breifne O'Brien at a function in the Berkeley Court Hotel, Dublin in 2002

BREIFNE O'Brien looked a man in his prime as he jogged along the seafront on Crofton Road in Dun Laoghaire last Friday week. The sun shone, the sea glistened and O'Brien looked tanned and healthy in his T-shirt and shorts. He turns 50 next month but, according to one observer, he seemed as fit and carefree as a man half his age.

Appearances can be deceiving, especially where O'Brien is concerned. It was a more subdued O'Brien who answered a knock on his front door five days later to a group of detectives from the garda fraud squad.

Since his crude Ponzi scheme collapsed in December 2008, leaving him owing €16m-€19m to at least 10 friends, he must have known that day would come. Detectives walked inside the small apartment in Dunedin Close in the less salubrious end of Monkstown, displaying their search and arrest warrants. O'Brien has been living there since separating from his wife -- another tragic by-product of the saga. Neighbours reportedly watched as he was accompanied to a waiting garda car, while other detectives stayed behind to search his flat.

At Irishtown garda station detectives laid the allegations before him: six people had made formal complaints that he had defrauded them of €10m. In the two-and-a-half years since the frauds were first reported, gardai had been gathering evidence to put to him. Bank statements map the money trail. Hundreds of bank accounts in several countries had been linked to O'Brien, according to sources. Records from the hard drive of his computer, seized from his office in Sandyford Business Park in south Dublin, are believed to include emails flogging investment schemes that were, literally, too good to be true.

He seemed courteous and polite in Irishtown garda station, according to sources. When detectives started to question him, he politely exercised his right to silence. The following morning shortly before 10am, O'Brien was was free to leave.

What happens next is up to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Gardai are expected to submit their investigation file shortly. His arrest certainly cheered his victims, although they will not speak publicly for fear of doing anything that could scupper the legal effort to recover their money.

O'Brien could have bolted off to his €358,000 golfing villa on the Sandy Lane resort in Barbados -- allegedly unwittingly paid for by one of his pals, Evan Newell. Instead he stayed around to face the music, somehow believing that he could sort things out, according to sources.

But fantasy features large in the rise and spectacular downfall of Breifne O'Brien and once he was found out, he was first to admit he had been living a lie. O'Brien had harboured fantasies of making money since he graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, according to friends. He was privately educated, the son of wealthy parents who was raised in a castle, and graduated with an economics degree. The strong friendships he made in those years were later to provide fertile ground for people to rip off.

In the early Nineties, he had set up a string of dry cleaners and launderettes, was briefly involved in a cushion-hire company and an ill-fated diner, Starvin' Marvins, which folded within a year. His partners at that time were his good friend, Peter O'Reilly, and O'Reilly's cousin, David, another Trinity graduate. Company documents at the time show that O'Brien described himself as a property manager. By the mid-Nineties, he was a self-styled property investor.

From 1993 onwards he began the practice of securing large sums of money from his friends to buy options on property, promising to repay the money with generous returns on their investments. Instead of paying them back, he tried to persuade them to roll the money into another transaction instead. If he failed, he would find new targets to lure into an investment scheme, and use their money to repay the investor who wanted out.

O'Brien repeated this process over 10 to 15 years, it was claimed. The scam was so crude that a High Court judge later described it as an unsophisticated "confidence trick". The supposedly generous returns offered by O'Brien may have been the bait that hooked the investors, but it was O'Brien's performance as a man of honour, integrity and boundless charm that reeled them in time and again.

The confidence trick worked because the circle of friends whom he preyed on for funds never questioned his honesty. David O'Reilly, by then an investment banker in New York, invested sums of €200,000 to €500,000 a time, mostly in options to buy land. O'Reilly's money was supposed to be kept on account -- as proof that the deal could go through. The banker, who was busy working 18-hour days in the US, trusted O'Brien to look after things.

Daniel Maher got to know O'Brien through group skiing trips. He invested €450,000, apparently believing O'Brien's patter that he made his money on stocks and shares and a few highly profitable deals.

Evan Newell -- who met O'Brien on the social circuit in the Nineties and later mentored him through the early business start-ups -- escaped his schemes until 2007, when he finally invested €4.4m.

Martin O'Brien and Robert Dennison, both businessmen from Kildare, said they were introduced to Breifne by Peter O'Reilly, David's cousin. They accepted O'Brien's credentials and invested respectively €685,000 and €500,000 to buy an option over property in the Place Vendome in Paris. Dennison managed to get some of his money back but is still owed €300,000.

Brothers Louis and Robert Dowley, who are successful dairy farmers from Carrickon-Suir in Tipperary, said in affidavits they had known O'Brien for 10 years. On the advice of a mutual friend, they started investing with him in 2003 -- a total of €4.2m.

Why did they never suspect? There was one genuinely lucrative deal -- a property deal he was involved in with his father in 1998 had generated profits of €4m. His friends later claimed they believed that to be the source of his apparent wealth. That and his association with his stunningly wealthy brother-in-law, the Belgian financier, Bernard Lambilliotte, who was also managing director of Ecofin, an energy investment firm in London, and was a former non-executive director of Airtricity. Lambilliotte was also stung for more than €1.85m.

Most odious of all, according to a High Court judge, was the deceit perpetrated on David Bell, a former High Court taxing master and the father of O'Brien's college friend, Paul. Breifne courted both to invest in property options from the late Nineties. The money was supposed to be kept on account, and he and his son forwarded more than €1m to O'Brien over a decade. The deals appeared to be a fiction -- on one occasion at least he obtained money from the elderly Mr Bell on false pretences. Mr Bell was in his 80s at the time.

At his wedding to Fiona Nagle in Carrigrohane Castle in Cork in 2007, O'Brien paid tribute to Bell, his mentor and friend over 30 years, inviting the 200 guests to rise to their feet to give the man a standing ovation. A pretty shameless gesture given that he was ripping him off at the time.

The wedding was the pinnacle of their gilded world. He had dated many beautiful women but settled down with Fiona Nagle, whom he met in 1997. She was a mother of two from her first marraige, and she featured prominently on the society circuit. She had worked in a public relations company and afterwards set herself up as an event manager. The pinnacle of her year was the annual Sinatra Ball in the Four Seasons hotel. The event often generated column inches and photographs of Fiona, who organised the event, looking beautiful in the social pages.

They had three children together, the arrival of one son celebrated with a christening in a huge marquee for more than 200 people at their Victorian period home, Invergarry, on Silchester Road in Glenageary. The Three Tenors sang and celebrities such as Marty Whelan and Mary Hanafin, a government minister, were among the guests.

No one questioned whether any of it was fake even though he worked from an office unit in Sandyford Industrial Estate in south Dublin -- which he owns along with four car parking spaces. The only tangible businesses he appeared to be involved in were his laundrettes and the taxi business -- lucrative though they may be, they certainly would not have financed their expensive lifestyle.

In words that have since come back to haunt her, Fiona boasted in Image magazine around that time about her love for Gucci, her taste for Chanel, and the dresses of Roland Mouret. O'Brien drove an Aston Martin said to be worth €70,000. They jointly owned three apartments in the Beacon development in south Dublin and a holiday home in Barbados.

The Dowleys were among the first to learn that O'Brien was a fraud. The brothers had been trying to get their money back for a year, as the global credit crunch loomed. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the financial turmoil that followed compounded matters. O'Brien kept stalling -- even giving them cheques which he asked them not to cash until certain deals had gone through.

O'Brien must have known his days were numbered but he still scrabbled desperately for more investors, fresh money, to stave off others who were clamouring to get their money back. The High Court heard that he had taken in €6m from investors in the two months before he went bust and paid €5m of that to a single investor.

According to Dearbhail McDonald's book, Bust, that investor was Brian Reid, a senior executive at the Royal Bank of Scotland, whom O'Brien knew from Trinity College. Mr Reid declined to return calls to the Sunday Independent some months ago.

In early December 2008, O'Brien flew to New York to plead with his wealthy brother-in-law, Lambilliotte, for more money. The High Court later heard how O'Brien actually believed that his brother-in-law would help him to get out of the mess by repaying his out-of-pocket investors.

It seemed that he tried to maintain the charade to the bitter end. He was having a bespoke €55,000 kitchen delivered to his home -- to go with the new €1.5m extension -- on the same day that his duplicity was exposed. That same morning, Breifne O'Brien telephoned his friend Louis Dowley and told him that the money he and his brother had invested was gone. He left voice mails for others. The shocked brothers drove straight to Dublin to confront him at his home in Glenageary. Word spread to other investors, David Bell and Evan Newell among them. The next day -- a Saturday -- they all met at solicitors McCann Fitzgerald. O'Brien was invited to explain himself: and it was here he told the solicitor, Brian Quigley, that he was "living a lie" and that it

was "easy to pull the suckers in when the economy was booming". By Monday, the High Court slapped a freezing order on O'Brien's assets, ordering him not to reduce his assets below €20m. The kitchen company joined the queue of creditors waiting to get paid.

Mr Justice Peter Kelly said it was "particularly odious" that his victims included not only his friends, but the elderly father of one of them.

Fiona Nagle has also spoken of her trauma at being betrayed. She got little sympathy when she asked a judge for €4,000 a week in living expenses to raise her family, when the scandal initially unfolded. She dropped the application when the court ruled her financial outgoings would have to be heard in public.

Last year, she said she found out about her husband's "activities" in December 2008, along with everyone else. At the time, she had five children "ranging from an infant of six months to a son of 18 years who was studying for his Leaving Certificate, all of whom, as well as myself, were devastated by the revelations of my estranged husband's business activities and the subsequent trauma to our lives."

The business, Blackrock Cabs, became her only source of income. Even though she had five children to care for, the demands of the taxi firm required her to work full-time, often seven days a week. Sources close to her said she drew a small wage and childcare was part of the package.

She was later accused of using company funds to meet personal bills -- a claim that she denied. Under her husband's stewardship, however, alarming irregularities had been found in the business. Accounts showed that over €900,000 had passed through a directors' loan account, about €56,000 of that was spent on repairs to the family home, shopping trips to Musgrave Cash & Carry and a collection of paintings.

There were payments for foreign holidays -- O'Brien frequently used a travel company in Sandymount to book his flights, and he also used the cab company to pay insurance policies and service loans.

Those who have encountered O'Brien since his duplicity was exposed have been baffled by his calm and polite demeanour, giving no trace of the burden of wrongdoing weighing on his shoulders.

The sheriff's staff were struck by it when they called to his Victorian home with a truck to seize whatever valuables they could lay their hands on, O'Brien calmly handed them the keys of his Aston Martin without a murmur of protest. Fiona Nagle called the gardai and her solicitor, asserting her ownership of the household goods.

The sheriff's men also searched a lock-up in Deansgrange, but instead of the treasure trove of valuables they hoped for, they recovered a collection of paintings, including a sketch of Fiona. The paintings, which were said to be worth €50,000, were finally sold last year for an estimated €7,000.

When the sheriff himself, John Fitzpatrick, moved into O'Brien's offices in Sandyford Industrial Estate to take over Blackrock Cabs, O'Brien continued to work upstairs. The sheriff stayed below, studying the accounts for the taxi company. O'Brien was courteous even when two weeks later he served the sheriff with a notice to quit. O'Brien still owned the building, after all.

Some investors suspect O'Brien could be a fantasist. Last year, he contacted some of them, promising to repay "borrowings" -- his term for the money he conned out of his friends -- and put everything to rights, according to sources. He persuaded at least some of his investors to meet him face to face during the summer, where he outlined his supposed plans to make amends. But according to one person with knowledge of the meeting, his plans were, at best, deluded. A letter outlining his plans went to the fraud squad.

They also wonder whether he has salted money away. When the Dowleys arrived at Invergarry on that fateful day in December 2008 to demand an explanation, they noticed a stockbrokers' contract on the table referring to a share sale worth €50,000. That was what prompted them to ask the High Court to freeze his assets.

After his financial collapse, a bank statement turned up in one of his offices revealing thousands in an Anglo account in the UK. Substantial sums of money had been lodged -- thought to be the rental income from the web of commercial properties O'Brien either fully or partly owns. Although O'Brien's bank accounts are subject to a freezing order, the statement demonstrates the kind of money he was making.

O'Brien claimed in court his assets were worth €36m in the boom; in Dubai, London, Paris, Germany, Ireland and beyond.

His empire was built on deceit and now he is paying the price. He is shunned by his friends, estranged by his wife, and the fraud squad is on his back. O'Brien's fantasy world is well and truly shattered.

Sunday Independent

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