Cerberus will not appear before Nama loan sale inquiry
A US investment fund that bought Nama's assets in Northern Ireland for in excess of £1 billion will not appear before a Stormont inquiry investigating the controversial sale.
Cerberus said it would not send a representative to give oral evidence to the Finance Committee amid concerns about "jeopardising" the on-going criminal investigation into the deal.
The UK's National Crime Agency is probing the sale after claims were made in the Irish parliament that £7 million of the millions of legal fees involved in the transaction had been earmarked for an unnamed Northern Ireland politician.
Political watchdogs either side of the Irish border are examining the sale of the huge Northern Ireland property portfolio of Nama (National Asset Management Agency) - the so-called "bad bank" set up by the Irish government to deal with at-risk loans.
All parties involved in the transaction have vehemently denied acting unlawfully.
A Cerberus spokesman, who stressed the investor had not been accused of wrongdoing, acknowledged the Stormont committee had an important oversight role.
"As a responsible corporate citizen, we wish to provide appropriate assistance to the committee while respecting the constraints under which it operates," he said.
"Nevertheless, we believe that we must act with care to ensure that we do not jeopardise the criminal or judicial process, nor the lawful interests of others, such as the borrowers with whom we have contractual relationships. As such, Cerberus believes we can best assist the committee by way of written submission, which we are advised lawfully addresses the issues that are germane to the committee.
"The submission is provided in lieu of sending a representative to the committee on 23 September 2015. We are confident that the committee will find our submission beneficial to its deliberations."
As well as discussing the statement from Cerberus, committee members today took a vote that could see some witnesses called to the inquiry giving evidence behind closed doors.
Members repeatedly referred to the scheduled appearance of loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, who claims to have information about the sale, during a lengthy discussion and debate about potential restrictions.
A proposal from Sinn Fein committee chair Daithi McKay to hear his evidence in public, with tighter rules around questioning and his opening statement, was rejected in a split vote.
Another proposal, from independent MLA John McCallister, to hear all future evidence in closed session, with the committee releasing an unofficial, and potentially redacted, transcript afterwards, was also narrowly defeated, despite DUP support.
In the event, a majority of members backed Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane's proposal that all future witnesses must prove a "direct link" to those involved in the deal if their evidence is to be heard in public session. Those who can't prove such a link will be heard in private and a transcript, potentially redacted, will be published later.
Ms Cochrane insisted her option ensured all evidence would be heard in some form.
"But some will be in open session if they tick that box (direct link), and others will be in closed session with the transcript," she said.
"This gives us that little bit of extra protection to ensure we stay within the terms of reference."
The debate around restrictions saw Sinn Fein, SDLP and UUP members argue for open hearings, stressing the need for transparency, with the DUP countering by highlighting the importance of not airing any evidence that could prejudice the judicial process.
While Mr Bryson will now be asked to prove he has such a direct link, so too will Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who is also due before the committee next week.