Monday 11 December 2017

The fall of King Con

Breifne O'Brien appeared to have all the trappings of success -- a glamorous wife, a beautiful home, a string of properties and an Aston Martin. But his life of luxury was built on deceit. Over 15 years, he duped his oldest and closest friends into ploughing e18m into his bogus investment schemes. As the investigation into his scam continues, Maeve Sheehan recalls the day the deluded charmer finally admitted the game was up

Breifne O'Brien appeared to have all the trappings of success — a glamorous wife, a beautiful home, a string of properties
Breifne O'Brien appeared to have all the trappings of success — a glamorous wife, a beautiful home, a string of properties
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

THREE years ago this month, Breifne O'Brien took a flight from New York bound for Dublin and certain ruin. For 15 years, he had played the part of an investment guru, deploying his easy charm and debonair manner to dupe his friends into investing €18m in his bogus schemes.

Much of it went on shoring up the lifestyle to which he and his glamorous wife Fiona Nagle had become accustomed: a villa in Barbados, skiing holidays, the usual chic trappings of an affluent Celtic Tiger couple. The global credit crunch forced him out, like pus from a lanced boil.

New York was O'Brien's last desperate attempt to dig himself out of a hole, a plea to his wealthy financier brother-in-law Bernard Lambilliotte to stump up the cash to pay the investors who clamoured for their money back. He boarded the plane empty-handed. The game was up.

It was December 12, 2008, a Friday morning. Peter O'Reilly had waited anxiously at Dublin Airport since 5am that morning for O'Brien's plane to land. O'Reilly, a financial adviser, was an old friend of O'Brien's since their Trinity College days. Three of his clients invested €1.5m in O'Brien's schemes. O'Reilly had been trying to get their money back for days. Alarmingly, O'Brien had left a message to say he had "mistakenly" transferred it to his brother-in-law's bank account and was on his way to New York to sort it out. O'Reilly panicked. O'Brien wouldn't answer his phone so O'Reilly found out from his secretary when he was due back.

Two New York flights landed with no sign of O'Brien. He had somehow slipped through. O'Reilly was driving across the city to seek him out in his south Dublin bolthole when elusive O'Brien finally called: "All he said was that he was in deep financial difficulties and to talk to his solicitor... then he hung up," O'Reilly later wrote in an email to his business partner.

Down on his Tipperary farm, another of O'Brien's old friends, Louis Dowley, was oblivious to the looming financial disaster until his phone rang at 10.30am. It was O'Brien, calm and low-voiced, saying he was in financial difficulty. He told Dowley to contact his solicitor and hung up.

Like O'Reilly, Louis and his brother Robert had known O'Brien for more than 20 years. They went to rugby matches, parties, weddings and christenings together. They also had more than €3m tied up in O'Brien's schemes. They drove straight to Dublin. It was getting dark when they reached Invergarry, the grand Victorian home on Silchester Road in Glenageary which O'Brien shared with Fiona Nagle, her two children from her first marriage and three of their own.

The Dowleys were shown into the living room. O'Brien was sitting down, apparently distraught, cradling his head in his hands. He confirmed the worst: the money was gone. The more the brothers vented their anger, the more he bowed his head in anguish. With characteristic delusion, O'Brien tried to convince them that he could still get their money back.

Fiona, who has said she was unaware of her husband's activities, wasn't there when the Dowley's arrived. She later opened the front door, ashen-faced, to another old college friend, David O'Reilly. He too had money tied up: about €3.6m. O'Reilly showed up after getting the same brief, but loaded, voicemail as the others.

A funereal air hung around the period house. A kitchen extension, reputed to have cost €1.5m, was still under construction, a jarring reminder of O'Brien's extravagance at their expense. A new bespoke kitchen had arrived just that day, still boxed up and waiting to be installed. The company that supplied it later had to go court to try to get paid.

The events of that day are no doubt seared on the brains of those involved. It was the day life changed utterly for O'Brien, his wife and his family, while his friends were just waking up to the fact that they'd been had.

A lot has happened to Breifne O'Brien, now 50, in the intervening three years but being called to account for his outrageous deception isn't one of them.

He is, however, separated from his wife; being sued for about €18m by 11 people, including his brother-in-law and seven once-close friends. His myriad properties are in hock to the banks. His accounts have been frozen and he is under investigation by the National Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation. He has been dropped like a hot stone from his social circle and his name is mud.

He was arrested last summer, but the investigation isn't finished yet. Detectives have taken 80 witness statements; some of them run to more than 80 pages.

The Director of Public Prosecutions won't get the Garda file until early next year, and no doubt more months will pass before she decides whether O'Brien has a case to answer. Contrast that with Bernie Madoff -- arguably a supersized, American version of O'Brien -- who confessed to a giant Ponzi scheme in the first week of December 2008, was arrested on December 11 and convicted in March 2009.

Just as Madoff had New York high society buzzing, so O'Brien became the dinner party topic du jour in Dublin. Nothing sets tongues wagging faster than rich people behaving badly. Where O'Brien is concerned, the question is often why he had to resort to such dishonesty in the first place.

He comes from an affluent family in Cork. His father Leo is a successful businessman. The family home is Carrigrohane Castle, a centuries-old pile overlooking the River Lee. He was handsome, popular with an easy and charming manner. He had a big circle of friends and a string of pretty girlfriends before he settled down with Fiona.

He was far from a high-flier when he left Trinity College in the mid-Eighties with a degree in economics and social science. Most of the friends he duped out of money were more successful than he was, going on to have genuine financial careers.

Sweep aside the false facade of wealth, and all O'Brien legitimately had to his name was a couple of launderettes, shops and a taxi company, Blackrock Taxis Ltd, in Sandyford industrial estate.

Even then, it was his friend, Peter O'Reilly, who set him up in the launderette business in the late Eighties. The launderette was O'Reilly's idea and, because he had a day job in finance, he asked O'Brien, who wasn't working at the time, to come in as his business partner. O'Reilly eventually sold out to O'Brien in 1996. These businesses were cash rich and O'Brien seemed to be doing well.

By his own admission, O'Brien had already started cheating by then. Why is anyone's guess. One friend from his early years suspected that the seeds for his scam artistry may have been sown after he left college in the mid-Eighties.

Apparently, he used to borrow money occasionally from friends for some business deal or another. The sums were in the thousands and he always seemed to pay it back. He was trusted. And trust was crucial to his pyramid scheme. Without it there was no money, just a lot of awkward questions. That's probably why he preyed on his friends.

By the time he met his wife, he had set his sights on a far more salubrious lifestyle than anything a taxi firm and launderettes could fund. O'Brien enjoyed well-cut clothes, good shoes and driving his €70,000 Aston Martin. Fiona Nagle, a cool, dark-haired beauty from Cabinteely, south Dublin, matched his style.

She once told a newspaper: "When I left school, I worked in my father's timber business. Then I went to London, where I had a ball for two years. I came home, met my husband and we married within the year."

She met Breifne in 1997, a year after she separated from her first husband. She had by then put in stints at the PR company, Fleishmann-Hillard Saunders and Opera Ireland before setting up her own public relations and event management firm.

Fiona was well-connected in her own right. When she and Breifne got together, their social cachet soared. They joined the ranks of the beautiful society couples who populate social diaries. The christening of their son in 2005 made several paragraphs. They celebrated with a typically Celtic Tigerish party for 200 in the garden of Invergarry.

The guests included Mary Hanafin, who was then a Fianna Fail government minister, Marty Whelan, the broadcaster and Michael O'Doherty, the publisher of VIP magazine. For Fiona, the publicity worked both ways and she had charity balls to promote.

Her main gig was the annual Sinatra Ball in the Four Seasons hotel, cementing her status as Ireland's "premiere party organiser".

When she was voted one of Ireland's most stylish women, she gave an interview to a fashion magazine: "My style is practical but totally impractical after 8pm. I never stick to one designer -- Chanel always rises to the top of the pile. Roland Mouret makes me feel like a woman."

Breifne O'Brien married Fiona Nagle in a lavish but tasteful ceremony in September 2007 at O'Brien's family home, Carrigrohane Castle. O'Brien, dressed in a white suit, raised a toast to his good fortune, singling out one man in particular for praise. He was David Bell, a retired lawyer and former High Court taxing master, and the father of his schoolfriend Paul.

In an apparently heartfelt tribute, O'Brien thanked him for his advice and friendship down through the years and raised his glass in gratitude to a standing ovation from the guests. Bell must have felt keenly the shamefaced duplicity of this tribute when, just over a year later, he learnt that O'Brien had cleaned him out of €1m. Along with his son, he was among O'Brien's earlier victims.

O'Brien came to the Bells in 1998, offering them a guaranteed return if they put up capital to buy an option on land. When the term ended, and he had to return their money, he pulled another irresistible deal out of the hat. And so it went on for more than 10 years, with investments rolled over from one bogus deal into the next. They never actually saw their €1m again.

He repeated this pattern with those he lured into his schemes; his Trinity friend, David O'Reilly, a hedge fund manager; Evan Newell, a successful property entrepreneur and sometime mentor to O'Brien; Daniel Maher, a business executive and friends since they met on holidays in Greece in 1983; the Dowleys, Lambilliotte and, it is thought, many others who were not named in court.

Lots of investments seemed to work out. O'Brien apparently ensured that enough people got their money back -- with bogus profit -- to spread the word about his Midas touch. O'Brien never advertised for business, often presenting these supposedly unmissable investment opportunities as favours to his pals.

According to court documents, when investors demanded their money, he paid them with money from other investors. Another ploy was to insist that his was the only name to be associated with the deal. That covered him when he asked investors to transfer their money into his personal bank account, giving him total control of the funds.

Friends had little cause to question him. For one thing, he bigged up his association with his brother-in-law, as though to lend credence to his scams. Lambilliotte, who married O'Brien's sister Aoife, was a Belgian international investment manager with a proven track record. He churned out the kind of deals that O'Brien may have fantasised about. He certainly hung on the Belgian's coat tails. When Lambilloite's firm made a killing on Airtricity shares, O'Brien let on that he cleaned up too.

O'Brien did have a genuine windfall in 1998, when he joined his father in a property deal in Cork. He had already embarked on his pyramid scheme by then but the curious thing was why he didn't use his share of the reported €4m profit from the Cork deal to get out. After he finally confessed, he apparently claimed that he could have cleared his debts at this point and started afresh. He chose not to.

By then, his fantasy life was only beginning. Over the following decade, his outward shows of wealth became more ostentatious, his personal property portfolio grew and his status as an investment guru to an elite few, plucked from within from his own social circle, swelled.

As long as he could pull in new investors to pay off old ones, O'Brien was able to keep the scam going. The global financial meltdown of 2008

pulled the rug from under him. As investors clamoured to get their money back, he embarked on desperate measures to get more money in. In the weeks before his pyramid scheme collapsed, he raised more than €6m by peddling a trumped-up option deal at Place Vendome in Paris. He immediately transferred €5m of it to pay off another investor in London while straining to keep others at bay.

His stalling tactics became increasingly desperate: "The office was broken into and valuables, including all the cheque books, stolen. Obviously the guards told me to stop all cheques," he told Peter O'Reilly, who was chasing his clients' money.

O'Brien wrote that email on December 4. Eight days later, he was bust.

Following his grief-stricken, fireside confession, O'Brien agreed to meet a solicitor for seven of his former friends the following day. The Dowleys, David O'Reilly, Evan Newell, Daniel Maher and a representative of the Bell family were all there, struggling to contain their rage as O'Brien calmly recounted how he conned them. According to court documents, "he did not appear in any way distressed."

He confessed, according to the documents, that he had been living a lie for 15 years, and regarded them as "suckers" who were easy to pull in during the boom. He reckoned he owed 11 of them €16m-€19m. He used €4m on his business investments, €4m to pay fictitious dividends and the rest went into his own pocket to fund his "personal and family lifestyle".

He claimed that everything would be fine as he valued his assets at €36m, including properties in Belize, Berlin, Boston, Spain, a shopping centre in Monkstown, Sandyford, Reading and Paris.

Fantasist to the last, he still hoped that Lambilliotte would bail him out, even though he conned him out of €1.8m.

While O'Brien buries his head, Fiona Nagle, 45, has been dealing with some harsh realities. She has said she knew nothing of her husband's activities.

Tongues wagged all around her. When the scandal broke, it spread like wildfire across her south Dublin stomping ground, and not without a hint of schadenfreude. One commentator wrote that Superquinn in Blackrock might as well have broadcast the news on the Tannoy that weekend, as so many of its well-heeled customers talked about nothing else.

When O'Brien's assets were frozen by the High Court, Fiona claimed her legal right to the share of the properties. They included Invergarry, the villa in Barbados and an apartment in Dalkey. However, she didn't reckon on being ridiculed when she asked a judge to extricate her household budget from O'Brien's web of assets. Through her lawyer, she asked straight-faced for €4,000 a week to cover her household expenditure. She withdrew her application when the judge rejected her request to hear it in private.

In May 2009, she opened the door to the men from the County Sheriff's office armed with a High Court order to seize €3m worth of valuables. O'Brien handed over the keys to his Aston Martin without a whimper. Fiona didn't take it so well, according to a source in the sherriff's office, and she called the gardai.

She was also humiliated socially when Michael O'Doherty, the publisher of VIP who was a guest at her son's christening, took a swipe at her at his magazine's style awards, to sharp intakes of breath. "Personally, I thought she was fair game," he said at the time. "But there were obviously people there who felt more sympathy for Fiona than for Breifne. I should have realised that because the type of people attending the awards would be very much her scene and her circle of friends."

Apart from a letter to the Sunday Independent pleading for privacy, she made one public statement, following her being ejected from Blackrock Taxis Ltd after it was liquidated by the county sheriff to help pay her husband's debts. It subsequently emerged that O'Brien had used company funds to pay for shopping, repairs to the family home, and payments for foreign trips. After his confession, O'Brien stepped down from the business, based in Sandyford Industrial Estate, and Fiona took over. She turned to her mother for a €20,000 loan to pay the staff when the bank cut off the overdraft facility that Christmas Eve.

"I did so at the time out of a sense of responsibility to the staff of the company, some of whom had been there for over 10 years, and to the creditors of the company," she said in the statement. "I worked very long hours and often worked seven days a week. I was unable to assume these full-time responsibilities at that time as I 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."

Fiona complained of her hostile treatment and is taking an unfair dismissals case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, where she showed up for a brief hearing last month in a 4X4, looking wan and understated.

For a woman who courted publicity to further her charities, she felt the other side of that double-edged sword when her husband became persona non grata.

A newspaper photographed him a couple of years ago, signing on. But O'Brien lives in a flat in Monkstown Farm. He goes to rugby matches, sees his children and may well be plotting how to rescue himself.

Last year, he astonished one friend with a letter in which he promised to get his money back with some Walter Mittyish plan. What knocked him sideways, though, was that O'Brien referred to the money as "borrowings". The letter is now with the fraud squad.

If O'Brien seems like a fantasist, he also was cunning enough to sustain a lie for 15 years, deceiving those closest to him in the process. Judge Peter Kelly regarded the deception of his close friends as one of most "odious" aspects of the case when it came before him in 2009. Greed might have caused the downfall of Breifne O'Brien but his betrayal is what they'll remember long after the hunt for his money runs cold.

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