Belfast Telegraph

Cerberus paid law firm £15m 'for access to Stormont government and other info'

UUP: Latest Nama revelations are 'shocking' and 'raise several fundamental questions'

A US investment fund which sealed the biggest property deal in Northern Ireland's history said it paid a law firm £15 million for access to the Stormont government as well as other valuable information.

Cerberus paid £1.2 billion for a massive collection of property loans, taken over by the Irish Republic's toxic assets agency Nama after the economic crash.

Mark Neporent, the firm's chief operating officer, said it paid a multimillion-pound "success fee" to US law firm Brown Rudnick, which made an unsolicited approach to Cerberus about buying the portfolio in April 2014.

"What we were paying for was work they had done over the course of at least a year - not just for two weeks' work - and we were also paying for their access to other stakeholders through local affiliations," he told a parliamentary committee in Dublin.

Asked who, he replied: "The Northern Ireland Executive, people in the Republic."

Mr Neporent said it wanted the access to make sure it was welcome in the region and understood what issues there were locally over the sale of the huge property portfolio.

The Cerberus chief said it also got an understanding of the property loan borrowers and their business plans with the help of Belfast law firm Tughans, which was working with Brown Rudnick.

"We thought it could be very valuable commercial information for us," he said.

Both law firms also helped close the deal, he told the Public Accounts Committee investigating the so-called Project Eagle sale, which has been mired in controversy for more than a year.

Another US company, Pimco, has said it pulled out of an earlier bid weeks before after it was asked for a fixer payment of £16 million for three parties behind the scenes.

The money was to be shared equally by Belfast businessman Frank Cushnahan, Brown Rudnick and Ian Coulter, a managing partner of Tughans, Pimco previously told the committee.

Mr Cushnahan was formerly a Nama adviser on Northern Ireland, on the recommendation of the Democratic Unionists.

All parties have denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Neporent said Brown Rudnick told him Pimco pulled out of the sale because of turmoil in the company at the time and because Nama had concerns Mr Cushnahan would become a future Pimco adviser if it won the bid.

"We were not told Mr Cushnahan was working with Tughans before that, we were not told he was intended to be paid," he said.

Separately, fresh allegations were made in the Irish parliament that Mr Cushnahan was peddling Nama assets overseas shortly after being appointed to its advisory board in 2010.

Independent TD Mick Wallace said he travelled to Asia last weekend to collect emails and documents from a businessman which will help show Project Eagle was the biggest financial scandal in Irish history.

"Within a short time of Frank Cushnahan being appointed to Nama, he was peddling assets belonging to Nama to foreign parts," he said in the Dail.

"Tughans were involved, the Japanese bank Nomura were involved, who were later the main financier for Cerberus's purchase of Project Eagle.

"Nama from start to finish stinks from high heaven."

Mr Wallace demanded the board and executive of Nama be suspended until a full state inquiry is launched into the affair.

"It was not a competitive process, it was a scam," he told the Dail.

"Nama has undersold a massive slice of this country to US vulture funds for a fraction of its value."

Mr Wallace read out a number of the emails which referred to Mr Cushnahan ensuring "only people of highest integrity at government level will be involved", the returns looking "very, very good", as well as "acquisition success fees".

The TD, who first raised concerns about Project Eagle, has also sent a letter to Nama chairman Frank Daly naming 20 individuals who worked for the state agency "who may have engaged in serious malpractice".

He asked Mr Daly last week how many of the named individuals have been reported to the Garda but said he was still awaiting a response.

Ulster Unionist finance spokesperson, Philip Smith MLA, said: "These latest revelations raise several fundamental questions. Did Cerberus get what they paid for, and if so who did they meet and when, and lastly what was the outcome of those meetings?

"If the accusations made at the PAC are true it is outrageous that law firms were effectively selling access to Northern Ireland’s Government. The longer this sordid affair runs, and the more revelations that come to light, then the more detail we need from Sammy Wilson and Peter Robinson about their meetings relating to NAMA.

"The Assembly’s Finance Committee have now agreed to undertake a new inquiry to determine whether there was inappropriate political influence or attempted political influence on NAMA’s operations in Northern Ireland and in particular whether there was inappropriate ministerial lobbying to discount the NAMA sale price.

"This latest revelation further confirms the need for this inquiry to get to the bottom of the NAMA scandal. The more revelations, the greater the need to shed light on this whole sordid process to restore public confidence."


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