Belfast Telegraph

'Bad bank' Nama hires private detectives to look for developers' hidden wealth

By Emmet Oliver

The Republic's toxic assets agency Nama is hiring up to 10 private investigators to do a worldwide trawl for secret cash deposits and hidden properties owned by Ireland's top developers.

In an unprecedented crackdown on hidden wealth, the investigators will be allowed interview developers, their accountants and solicitors and pore over their bank statements in order to find assets put out of reach of the State.

The new get-tough policies are designed to get behind complex layers used to hide properties and cash, and also flush out assets that developers have so far failed to disclose.

All major Nama developers were forced to swear affidavits last year, detailing their assets and their debts. If it is later proven they lied, Nama can impose draconian sanctions on them.

For the first time the investigators will also look at the social lives of developers and the lifestyles they lead.

Nama has responsibility for 850 developers.

The investigators, known as "asset tracers'', will use the most up-to-date forensic computer techniques to discover undisclosed wealth. In order to delve into more secretive countries, the investigators will be allowed to hire local experts themselves to increase the scrutiny of Ireland's developers, who owe over €70bn in total.

Yesterday the agency invited companies to apply for the work, and up to 10 private investigation firms will go on panel. Contracts are expected to run over two years with an option for renewal.

The investigators hired are obliged to keep in contact with Nama at all times and decisions on how they operate are ultimately down to Nama.

"With 850 debtors there is no doubt a few of them have hidden assets. But in the scheme of things, we are only looking at a small number.

"A lot of these developers didn't see any of this (the property crash) coming. But some did and it would imprudent of us not to look into this. We have few people in mind," a source close to the agency said last night.

Nama has already reversed transfers of wealth from developers to their children and their spouses. Several hundred million euros of transfers have been reversed and Nama is hoping to find more such cases.

"It is a prudent thing to do, clearly they wouldn't be doing this if they didn't think they were likely to find something," said one source familiar with the plan yesterday.

A large number of developers have set up companies offshore and this is likely to be a focus of probes. The Isle of Man is a popular place for developers to base their companies for instance.

Nama deals directly with almost 200 developers, with smaller developers being managed locally by the banks.

Overall, Nama is managing loans of over €30bn, although these loans are worth -- on paper -- over €70bn.

It means that Nama is one of the largest so-called bad banks in the world.

So far the agency has concentrated on getting a return for the taxpayer by selling assets in the UK and the US. The process of selling off Irish assets is expected to take far longer.

Most developers continue to draw a salary from their companies, with the approval of Nama.

The top developers are paid salaries of over €200,000 each, but Namaclaims this is cheaper than paying receivers to manage assets.

Nama has some of the most draconian powers of any bank or asset management agency in the world.

Story so far

Nama was set up by the Irish government in 2009 to buy the land and property development loans of the six failing Irish banks.

Its objective is to obtain the best achievable financial return for the Irish state on this portfolio over an expected lifetime of up to 10 years.

More than £3.3bn of Irish Nama loans are secured on assets in Northern Ireland.

The debt covers an estimated 150 different firms and individuals.

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