Belfast Telegraph

NAMA scandal: Former adviser calls for cross-border probe

Claims NI politician was to benefit from £7 million after land deal should be subject of joint investigation.

By Chief Reporter Ciaran Barnes

A former adviser to NAMA yesterday called for a police probe into claims a Northern Ireland politician was to benefit from £7.2m diverted into an offshore account after a billion-pound land deal.

Ex-Policing Board member Brian Rowntree, who gave advice to the Republic’s “bad bank”, said the allegation made in the Irish parliament by Wexford TD Mick Wallace was so serious that there had to be a joint cross-border investigation.

“I would call for a PSNI/Garda investigation,” he told Sunday Life.

“This has consequences far beyond a law firm and a former partner.

“In terms of public confidence there has to be a full investigation of which the terms of reference need to be laid out beforehand.”

Mr Rowntree’s call for a police probe came after it emerged tape recordings could expose how the £7.2m Isle of Man account was allegedly set up as a pay-off for a Northern Ireland politician.

Thirty hours of conversations between key players involved in the deal are said to have been secretly recorded. They relate to the US capital management firm Cerberus buying the £4bn Northern Ireland loans portfolio held by NAMA (National Asset Management Agency) for a knock-down £1.3bn.

If a police probe is launched they could be seized for officers to listen to the contents.

Stormont’s Finance Committee is to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the sale.

Its chairman, Daithi McKay, said: “These are very serious allegations and need to be fully and thoroughly investigated as a matter of urgency. If there is any suggestion of illegality then the police must thoroughly investigate the allegations.”

Belfast solicitors Tughans looked after legal issues around the transaction that involved 850 properties.

The firm has said a sum of money — believed to be £7.2m — was later diverted into an off-shore account by its former managing partner, Ian Coulter, who resigned from his post earlier this year.

It is this cash which Mick Wallace TD claimed last Thursday was “ear-marked” for a Northern Ireland politician.

Last night Tughans told Sunday Life it has retrieved the money in full, but stopped short of calling for a PSNI investigation.

Instead it wants to wait on the outcome of a Law Society probe before deciding what to do next.

Tughans said: “Ian Coulter’s departure from Tughans came after the firm discovered that professional fees owed to it had been diverted to an Isle of Man account of which he was the sole beneficiary were reported to the Law Society.

“The firm awaits the outcome of the Law Society’s inquiry before deciding which other agencies should be notified.”

But Brian Rowntree — who sat on the NAMA’s Northern Ireland advisory panel at the time of the sale of the loans portfolio — wants Tughans to call in the police now.

He added: “I had no knowledge of the business deal, I was kept in the dark entirely. I never had any formal dealings with Ian Coulter or Tughans. I would not have been in any circles with him.”

Sunday Life called several times to Mr Coulter’s gated home in a plush district of south Belfast to quiz him about the £7.2m offshore account, but there was no reply.

The former CBI chief executive has yet to speak publicly about the claims.

In his remarks in the Dail, Mr Wallace also mentioned Frank Cushnahan, a former chairman of the Red Sky building firm and also a former member of the NAMA’s Northern Ireland Advisory Committee.

He had an office in the same Belfast building occupied by Tughans, who last night stressed that he was “never engaged or employed” by the firm.

Key points of Mick Wallace's Dail speech:

Mick Wallace’s bombshell claims in the Dail could spark one of the biggest fraud probes ever seen in Northern Ireland.

If true, they would destroy the career of the politician who the Wexford TD alleges was to benefit from the £7.2m of Tughans cash diverted into an offshore account.

Below are the most relevant sections of Mr Wallace’s jaw-dropping speech that have led to calls for a police probe:

“There have been disturbing allegations around the largest ever sale of property in the history of the island of Ireland.

“The Northern Ireland loan portfolio, Project Eagle, involving more than 850 properties with a par value of €4.5bn, was sold to US private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management for less than €1.5bn, a surprise winner of the tender.

“In June 2012, following consultation with the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and Sammy Wilson MLA, NAMA reappointed Frank Cushnahan and Brian Rowntree to the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee.

“Two weeks later, a report by a Northern Ireland auditor’s office seriously questioned the stewardship of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which led to the resignation of Brian Rowntree and Frank Cushnahan.

“The report found breaches of housing executive guidelines in the sale of at least 27 land deals, the executive board being given wrong or no information relating to key property deals.

“Favoured property speculators were allowed to buy land well under market value, expressions of interest from other parties not being declared or considered, and at times no reasons being offered for some off-market sales.

“These two individuals stayed in NAMA, one of them up until the summer of 2014.

“The legal firm acting for Cerberus Capital Management, which purchased the Northern Ireland loan portfolio for €1.5bn, was Tughans of Belfast.

“Does the Tanaiste have any concerns that a routine audit of a solicitor’s firm that looked after the deal where €4.5bn of assets were sold for €1.5bn, with a massive loss for the Irish taxpayer?

“The routine audit showed that £7m sterling ended up in an Isle of Man bank account. It was reportedly earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or party.”

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