Belfast Telegraph

Cushnahan to sue BBC and others for defamation following claims on Nama

By Margaret Canning

Businessman Frank Cushnahan is launching defamation proceedings against unnamed publications next week, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Lawyers for the ex-Nama adviser are also pursuing the BBC over claims made in a Spotlight programme last month in which Mr Cushnahan was filmed referring to a finder's fee he was due over the sale of the Nama portfolio in Northern Ireland.

Mr Cushnahan's lawyer Paul Tweed of Johnsons Solicitors said BBC NI had been "put on notice" following the programme. Mr Cushnahan has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

The broadcaster had until yesterday to respond to a letter from the lawyers questioning the content of the programme.

A spokeswoman for the BBC said it "stands by the programme". "As far as we are aware, no proceedings have been issued at this time," the spokeswoman added.

Mr Tweed said: "I would confirm that the BBC have been put on notice in relation to serious defamatory and other issues arising from the covert filming, editing process and commentary in their Spotlight broadcast."

Proceedings are to be launched next week against unidentified publications following other claims about Mr Cushnahan's alleged involvement in the £1bn sale of assets to Cerberus.

Gareth Graham, who worked with Mr Cushnahan between 2005 and 2008, is also believed to be in the businessman's sights over statements about his former fellow company director.

Mr Graham, whose family set up the Sean Graham chain of bookmakers, had previously accused Mr Cushnahan of being "intent on destroying our businesses after he left".

In evidence to Stormont's finance and personnel committee last year, Mr Graham linked Mr Cushnahan with a decision by Bank of Ireland to put his companies into Nama.

Nama later sold its loan portfolio to Cerberus - and Mr Cushnahan has been accused of being in line for a fixer's fee over setting up the deal. He had earlier served as an adviser to the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee of Nama.

Mr Graham told the finance committee during the hearing last year that Cerberus had been "ruthless, unjust and unreasonable" in its dealings with his companies, putting his firms into administration.

After a long legal battle, Mr Graham yesterday apologised for the allegations he made about Cerberus but said he "reserves his position in relation to other entities connected with Project Eagle".

It is understood that Mr Cushnahan regards his case as having been strengthened by the withdrawal of Mr Graham's comments about Cerberus.

John Gordon, a top lawyer who regularly works with the US company, said he believes the firm is "tough but fair". "They provide solutions that the banks don't," added Mr Gordon from Napier Solicitors.

It is understood that Cerberus started to tighten up on its processes for making deals with clients following the start of the Graham court action.

People who did make deals with Cerberus include developer Paddy Kearney.

Mr Gordon said: "I don't share the concerns about Cerberus. They have bought a property and are there to get a return on their purchases. In my dealings, they have been pragmatic.

"Yes they have inflicted pain, but they make decisions - which the banks have not been doing up until now.

"Any property speculators and developers in Northern Ireland can do business with Cerberus. They are tough negotiators, but they are prepared to do business, and that's the main point."

Daithi McKay, chairman of the finance and personnel committee, which called Mr Graham to give evidence last year, said: "It's clear that whatever issues there were between Cerberus and Gareth Graham have now been resolved, and it's welcome that a resolution has been reached."

Asked whether Mr Graham should be called back in light of his retraction, Mr McKay replied: "That would be a matter for the incoming finance committee."

A spokesman for Cerberus said: "Mr Graham's comments are self-explanatory and consistent with everything Cerberus Capital Management has said on these matters to date."

The fund's purchase of the Nama portfolio marked the biggest investment by a private company in Northern Ireland.

The firm's chairman is former US vice-President Dan Quayle, while the firm's chairman is ex-US Treasury Secretary John W Snow.

A source familiar with Cerberus' work said the apology was "a total climbdown".

The PSNI yesterday would not confirm newspaper reports it was investigating Mr Cushnahan over allegations of fraud, specifically alleged offences of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception and conspiracy to defraud.

It is understood Mr Graham was contacted in October, and no charges have been brought.

It is also understood that DUP members of Stormont's finance committee effectively vetoed a call for a powerful commission of inquiry to be established to probe the Nama land deal.

Representatives of other parties, including Sinn Fein and the SDLP, wanted to make an official recommendation that the next Assembly should set up a commission, but the suggestion was voted down during a closed session of the committee held just last Wednesday.

Instead, the committee's progress report on its Nama inquiry, published on Wednesday, recommended only that the next committee - to be appointed after the May Assembly election - "makes a decision on concluding the review early in the next mandate".

A committee source told the Belfast Telegraph: "A commission of inquiry would have much stronger powers to compel witnesses to attend and would be able, for example, to conduct an audit of the business interests and activities of Frank Cushnahan, with regard to his involvement with Nama and any connection he has had to any Stormont department.

"We can't wait for the National Crime Agency investigation to run its course. The committee had a briefing with them and got no certainty on how long it will run. It could be five months or five years.

"How long is a piece of string?

"Rather than the incoming committee gathering more evidence in a piecemeal fashion, a full commission of inquiry would air it all thoroughly and look at everything in detail. It would restore public confidence and intention to get clarity on the Nama deal."

Nama last night criticised the report published by the committee on its hearings into Project Eagle. The report said Nama had been "unhelpful" in not giving oral evidence to the inquiry.

In a letter to Sinn Fein committee chairman Mr McKay yesterday, Nama chairman Frank Daly said he did not accept the body's findings.

Mr Daly added it had always been Nama's position that it was accountable to the Republic's Oireachtas. He also took issue with the report's claim that Nama should have suspended the sales process after learning of a proposed fee for Mr Cushnahan.

Mr Daly said the inquiry had not considered the risks such a decision would have caused to Nama. Investors might have been reluctant to invest time and money in carrying out due diligence and bidding on other loan or asset portfolios.

He also said the abandonment of the sale could have had very costly consequences for Nama and the recovery of the Irish market.

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