Six under investigation as Nama probe ramps up
The probe into allegations of corruption and financial irregularities around Northern Ireland's biggest ever property sale has seen six people placed under criminal investigation as suspects, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has said.
In the first agency's public statement since launching Operation Pumpless in July 2015, NCA director general Lynne Owens told the Policing Board that 40 witnesses have also been interviewed.
In addition, eight properties have been searched and a number of court orders have been obtained to gather material from members of the public and private institutions.
Ms Owens said: "The investigation is one of our highest priority operations in our serious and organised crime grid."
So far seven people have been interviewed under criminal caution by NCA officers examining the purchase of the National Asset Management Agency's (Nama) northern loan book.
Six people remain under criminal investigation and are deemed suspects, Ms Owens said.
In May, two people were arrested and interviewed under caution, but were subsequently released on bail.
"No inference should be drawn on the decision to release these people on bail," added Ms Owens.
Ms Owens said the NCA could not rule out further arrests, searches, interviews or court orders.
She also said they had not and would not be naming any of those arrested or interviewed.
The NCA took over the Nama inquiry from the PSNI last July and is working with other law enforcement agencies in Ireland, the Isle of Man and the USA.
Investigators are focused on four main areas - the Nama loan book purchase and dispersal of fees offshore, the relationships of those involved in the huge sale including allegations of corruption, the broader sale process including previous purchase attempts, and any offences suspected of having been committed under UK law.
Meanwhile, the Republic's Finance Minister Michael Noonan has insisted there was no political pressure from Stormont over the controversial property portfolio sale known as Project Eagle.
Anyone looking for evidence of interference in the sell-off by the Republic's bad bank Nama to US investment fund Cerberus two years ago was going down a cul-de-sac, he added.
"No one ever attempted to put political pressure on me," Mr Noonan told a parliamentary watchdog in Dublin that is investigating the sale.
Last week, Nama chairman Frank Daly suggested cross-border diplomatic concerns had played a part in the sale.
The toxic assets agency was influenced chiefly by commercial gain but also the political sensitivities involved at the time and "reconciled the two", he said.
Mr Daly also claimed that removing prominent Belfast businessman Frank Cushnahan from his role as a Nama advisor - on the appointment of the DUP - would have provoked cross-border tensions.
But before Dublin's Public Accounts Committee, Mr Noonan said there were legitimate and obvious concerns in Belfast that a fire sale of the properties could have damaged Northern Ireland's economy.
But he insisted Stormont leaders were "perfectly in order" to express fears about the impact of a sell-off on the construction sector and never sought to influence him.