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Judge to rule on Curistan legal bid

By David Gordon

A court tussle between a Northern Ireland company and a Government department is due to conclude today, leaving a judge to rule on the circumstances surrounding a shelved multi-million pound investment project.

The proceedings being taken by the Sheridan Group were yesterday dominated by criticism of its accounting records.

Sheridan, which is headed by businessman Peter Curistan, is challenging a Government decision to ditch it as preferred developer for the Queen's Quay waterfront site in Belfast.

Its legal team has argued that its axing by the Department for Social Development (DSD) flowed from "entirely false" accusations of a connection between the company and IRA money laundering.

DSD's lawyers have disputed this assertion, and pointed to financial management shortcomings highlighted by an independent accounting review.

The High Court judicial review will end today with Sheridan's QC Mark Horner making final submissions to judge Mr Justice Gillen.

Yesterday, DSD's barrister Stephen Shaw QC revealed details of a "due diligence" accounting examination of the company in 2006. A commonplace process in such situations, due diligence studies determine the commercial fitness of firms to deliver planned projects.

Mr Shaw said up-to-date audited accounts for businesses within the Sheridan Group were not made available for the review, which was conducted by accountancy company BDO.

It was also stated that Sheridan involved 34 associated companies at this stage, including entities in the British Virgin Islands, the Isle of Man and the Irish Republic.

In some cases, audited accounts were a number of years late while the accounts of other firms in the group had been qualified, the court was told.

Mr Shaw said that BDO's examination detailed a number of "inherent weaknesses" in the company, including an unnecessarily complex group structure and a "severe lack of corporate governance structures".

The review nevertheless concluded that the company was in a position to deliver the Queen's Quay scheme. Mr Shaw described this finding as " surprising" and "incoherent".

Another accountancy practice, Deloitte, was appointed by the authorities later in 2006 to review the BDO conclusion. It said it had insufficient information to give a recommendation.

Sheridan was subsequently axed as preferred developer in a decision announced by direct rule Minister David Hanson in December last year.

Mr Shaw said only eight out of the 27 entities in the Sheridan group at that time had up to date accounts available when the Deloitte study was conducted.

The court heard earlier this week that a BDO accountant has filed an affidavit in the case, challenging DSD comments about its due diligence report.

Sheridan's legal team told the judge that BDO had been paid in full for its work and the Department accepted that the terms of its remit had been fully met.

The firm's QC has argued that Deloitte should have had access to other information about Sheridan's financial position, including details from its bank.

Sheridan's case is that DSD's handling of the Queen's Quay project was poisoned by the IRA-link claims. This allegation was made in Parliament last year by DUP MP Peter Robinson.

Mr Shaw told the court on Tuesday that DSD regards the money-laundering accusations as "baseless" and "ill-judged".

He also stated that the Northern Ireland Office and PSNI reported to DSD that there were no grounds for concern.

It was stated in court that Mr Curistan believes the allegations levelled by Mr Robinson were motivated by "commercial rivalry" and that the MP had effectively been acting as a "voice piece" of other business interests.

The case continues.

Belfast Telegraph


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