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Monday 27 January 2020

The family tragedy behind high society conman's fall from grace

Breifne O'Brien
Breifne O'Brien
Detective Sergeant Martin Griffin
The wedding of Breifne O'Brien and Fiona Nagle
Former house of Breifne O'Brien
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The fall of Breifne O'Brien has been cast as a colourful morality tale; a dashing financier, who moved in high society, drove an Aston Martin, attended charity balls with his socialite wife, and of general Celtic Tiger 
opulence, until his Ponzi scheme collapsed and a life built on deception was exposed.

At his sentencing hearing at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court last week, the gloss was scratched away to reveal a tragedy that went far beyond financial loss.

His wife, Fiona Nagle, has divorced him, he is estranged from his father, the break-down of his sister's marriage is "not unconnected" to it, and former friends - some of them duped into investing in bogus financial schemes - have mostly deserted him.

It spoke volumes that the only family member at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on Wednesday was his mother. She sat dignified and composed listening to the story of her son's duplicity recounted by Detective Sergeant Martin Griffin.

Mr O'Brien changed his plea to guilty to 14 counts of deception and theft on the day his trial was to start last month. All that remained last Wednesday was for Judge Patricia Ryan to hear some of the evidence and decide his punishment.

The "injured parties" were Louis Dowley, an old friend from college days; Daniel Meagher, who met O'Brien on holidays in 1983 and remained his friend for 25 years; Evan Newell, who was introduced to O'Brien through a mutual friend. Pat Doyle and Martin O'Brien were introduced by a financial advisor who was an old friend of O'Brien's. There were other creditors too, the court heard.

Through the full day's hearing, O'Brien didn't show much emotion. Sometimes he looked detached as though they were talking about someone else. He wore a smart navy blazer, grey slacks and an open-necked, crisp white shirt. For the most part, he hunched over a notebook and scribbled down bits of evidence about his various offences and changed personal circumstances, his spectacles on his nose. He smiled only once, when his defence counsel got his age wrong by a year. "Sixty one", he whispered to the junior, "I was born in 1961."

His 51 years have spanned a privileged childhood in Cork, student years at Trinity College and a stint in America, a restaurant that failed, and a taxi firm and a couple of laundries that were successful. His father, Leo, involved him in some commercial deals, and his sister married a successful international businessman.

But he clearly couldn't hack it in the world of big business. His defence counsel said he became "obsessed" with investing. But detectives portrayed him as a fantasist.

Luan O'Braonain, the prosecution counsel, summed up his modus operandi: "Right across the board the basis of advancing money did not change. Mr O'Brien would say, 'give me money, I will retain it in my deposit account, it will not go anywhere else. It will allow me to demonstrate a capacity to buy, which will allow me to buy an option that I will essentially flip on."

But the funds were not retained in the account. Instead they were used for "a myriad of other purposes". From time to time, he paid them substantial returns - using other investors' money. Sgt Griffin called this "grooming".

In July 2006, Louis Dowley transferred €1m to O'Brien's National Irish Bank account. In two days, "a million euro was as good as gone," said Sgt Griffin. He spent it on a property in Cork and a €61,000 Audi Q7 for his then wife, Fiona Nagle.

Martin O'Brien, who was introduced to Breifne O'Brien by an old friend, invested a total of €685,000 in what he thought was an option to buy a valuable property on the Place Vendome in Paris.

But the funds were used to repay some investors, to keep them sweet and some for himself. He paid a firm of 
architects working on his house €9,075, transferred €5,500 to Fiona Nagle, and paid €93,000 to a construction company working on Invergarry, the Victorian family home on Silchester Road in Glenageary that they were refurbishing.

He "name dropped" genuine business people to add weight to their schemes. At a New Year's Eve party in Dubai, he sat at the same table as an Italian shipping merchant called Stefano. At the end of the night, Stefano gave his business card "out of courtesy" to O'Brien. They never met or even spoke again but Stefano became an unwitting tool to extract more money for his Ponzi scheme. He used his name to persuade Mr Dowley to put his cash into a bogus scheme to underwrite linen shipments. He even invented meetings with Stefano, reporting back how well it had gone.

On another occasion, he told Mr Dowley that Owen O'Callaghan, the Cork property developer, was interested in the site of a laundry in Donnybrook, persuading him to part with €530,000 to invest in it. That too was a lie.

He also "name dropped" Gerald Kean, the high-profile Dublin solicitor, and Fergus Feely, a former Anglo Irish Bank executive, and fabricated an email from a Monaco-based lawyer, James Hill. In each case he lied about their involvement.

The most poignant betrayal was of his father, Leo T O'Brien, whom he used to add credence to his fantasy business schemes.

When Evan Newell asked Breifne O'Brien for a guarantee on €2.1m he agreed to invest in a property in Hamburg, O'Brien turned to his father for a letter of comfort. He re-assured his father that there was sufficient money in their joint bank account to meet the funds to cover the guarantee, so his father agreed. It turned out that there were no funds in the account. The guarantee, unbeknownst to Leo O'Brien, was worthless.

On another occasion, he concocted a statement purporting to be from Anglo Irish Bank to say he had in excess of €4m in a joint account with his father. He gave the statement to Mr Dowley as reassurance. But Anglo confirmed to investigators that there was no such account.

Leo O'Brien has not spoken to his son in six years. Now in his 80s, he was a successful businessman in Cork. With his wife, he bought and restored Carrigrohane Castle and later helped his eldest son start out in business.

The court heard how 
Breifne O'Brien's sister's marriage breakdown was also "not unconnected" to the "events". His sister, Aoife, was married to Bernard Lambilioitte, the wealthy and successful Belgian financier - the real deal to Breifne O'Brien's deceit.

Although not one of the injured parties in the criminal action, Mr Lambiliotte also invested in Mr O'Brien's schemes, had lost money and sued him when it all fell apart in December 2008.

His counsel included all these things in a plea for leniency: "Both his parents are in their 80s. His mother has been supportive. He is estranged from his father, who he has not spoken to in six years. The end of his sister's marriage is not unconnected with these events," his counsel told the court. And then there was the end of his own marriage. "His wife had divorced him," the court heard.

He was "destitute", "financially ruined, socially ruined," and the "blitz" of unflattering publicity - he had been described as Ireland's Bernie Madoff - was "some element of punishment for his family."

The court heard how after his house of cards collapsed, O'Brien went for therapy at Forest Healthcare, in Wicklow, in 2009. "He was encouraged to apply his mind to the impact of the events on him and those around him," Mr O'Braonain told the court. "He acknowledged there were things that he had done but shouldn't have done."

Part of his treatment involved writing notes to some of the people who were affected by these "events". He never actually sent them.

The court was told a little of what those "affected" by Mr O'Brien are going through.

Mr Dowley, a farmer from Tipperary, lost €4m and found it a "terrible burden" to try to continue in business. Pat Doyle was unable to provide "a style of education" for his children that O'Brien can. Evan Newell, a long serving businessman, had lost a considerable sum of money - more than €3m. Martin O'Brien had also lost €500,000 but has "more or less been trying to put it behind him." His one-time friend, Daniel Meagher, who lost €450,000 "took comfort" that Breifne O'Brien was not putting them through a lengthy trial.

Earlier in the hearing, his counsel said O'Brien "believed in his own mind" that he would always be able to pay the money back.

But Sergeant Griffin replied: "I think you describe it well when you say fantasy."

As the sentencing hearing drew to a close, no one seemed able to tell the judge exactly how much had actually been paid back.

The court heard about shares worth around €800,000 and Mr O'Brien's accountants referred to €500,000 that was "available". But it transpired that Mr O'Brien still hadn't signed papers to allow certain assets to be "unlocked" .

He claimed he didn't know he had to sign them. The judge sternly demanded "clarity". She wanted to know who got what and when. And she wanted O'Brien to provide 

She adjourned his sentencing until October, to give him time. He could face up to 10 years in jail.

Sunday Independent

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