Belfast Telegraph

Betting empire scion upped stakes with legal gamble, but then blinked

By Margaret Canning

Gareth Graham's family business is one of hundreds in Northern Ireland which became caught up in the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) after it was established by the Irish Government in 2009.

It was set up to cleanse the banking system of toxic property loans made by Irish banks.

Those banks all made extensive loans available to their clients north of the border.

Mr Graham and his companies were a typical Bank of Ireland client.

They borrowed money from the bank to finance expansion from their original enterprise Sean Graham Bookmakers, including building an apartment block at College Court Central, near CastleCourt Shopping Centre.

When the property market crashed those loans were suddenly worth much less than they had been.

Along with billions of euros worth of other loans, all were clogging up the Irish banking system.

Nama was set up to process those loans in a way that would generate the best possible return for the Irish taxpayer.

Mr Graham's companies' loans went into Nama, and he told the Stormont finance committee last year that he continued to deal with the organisation like he had with Bank of Ireland.

Nama had set up an advisory committee in Northern Ireland, partly to assuage unionist fears that there would be no fire sale of assets here. Frank Cushnahan was on that committee, and he had earlier been involved with Mr Graham's companies as a chairman and shareholder.

That relationship went badly wrong and Mr Cushnahan left in 2008, after which Mr Graham accused Mr Cushnahan of being "intent on destroying our businesses after he left".

In 2014 Nama announced that it had sold all the loans on assets in Northern Ireland to Cerberus in a £1bn deal.

Companies were told that they would now be dealing with a new lender - so they had gone from Bank of Ireland, to Nama, to Cerberus.

In January 2015 prominent lawyer Ian Coulter left his law firm Tughans. There were rumours Mr Coulter had been told by his partners to leave over a deal linked with Nama but nothing could be substantiated. Mr Coulter denies any wrongdoing.

In July maverick TD Mick Wallace told the Dail that a politician and lawyer had both been in line for payments after they helped fix the Project Eagle deal behind the scenes.

He later added that Mr Cushnahan was due to land a fee - throwing up a possible conflict of interest as he had been on the Nama committee which was advising the organisation about how best to deal with the Northern Ireland assets.

Mr Cushnahan has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

An investigation was then launched by the National Crime Agency in the UK into whether any wrongdoing had taken place, and a complaint was also made to the FBI. The National Crime Agency investigations continue.

Mr Graham, meanwhile, was encountering Cerberus as it had been appointed as administrators to four of his companies, and he had encountered Mr Cushnahan as he had worked with him on the board of his companies.

In autumn last year the finance committee at the Assembly announced that it would hold hearings into the Nama sale, and called Mr Graham to tell of his insights based on his dealings with Nama.

It was in that hearing that he described working with Cerberus, and said the fund had demanded repayment of loans of £33m held by his companies.

Mr Graham said his belief was that the assets the loans related to were worth only £18m.

He told the committee: "My experience is that Cerberus's approach, in reality, is ruthless, unjust and unreasonable, which is at odds with the assertion that Cerberus's involvement in Northern Ireland would be good for the economy."

He told the Assembly that he had also complained to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the PSNI.

In today's statement, he withdraws his allegations and says he regrets any damage done to the reputation of Cerberus.

The scion of the family betting firm took a gamble on beating Cerberus - and, if today's apology is anything to go by, Mr Graham lost his gamble.

But as there is likely to be much more to the confidential agreement than we will ever find out, it could be a win-win situation if Mr Graham is back in control of his businesses and if Cerberus feels vindicated.

Belfast Telegraph