US-based Cerberus Capital's purchase in 2014 of the National Asset Management Agency's (Nama) Northern Ireland loans for £1.241 billion (€1.593 billion) was the biggest property deal in Irish history.
The elation that greeted the sale turned to controversy a year ago, however, amid claims that politicians and businessmen were to share £6 million that was transferred from Belfast law firm Tughans to an Isle of Man bank account.
The money was part of a £7.5 million payment that Cerberus classified as a success fee paid to those who advised it on the successful bid. The company denies any wrongdoing. The transaction is now the subject of several inquiries.
The UK's National Crime Agency is investigating the £6 million transfer. The Law Society of Northern Ireland is also examining the transaction, while the Northern Ireland Assembly's Finance and Personnel Committee is scrutinising the entire sale, which was known as Project Eagle.
Frank Cushnahan is a central figure in the story. He is a former member of Nama's Northern Ireland Advisory Committee, from which he resigned in 2013. He was well known in Belfast business circles, had the confidence of former Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and knew many of Nama's big debtors.
Earlier in 2013, without the agency’s knowledge, he joined accountant
and Tughans managing partner
, to work on a plan to sell Nama’s loans to Northern Ireland-linked borrowers, worth about £4.3 billion, in a single deal. They agreed that they should get a £15 million success fee if they succeeded.
Watters dropped out of the picture midway through 2013. By then, through contacts with US lawyers Brown Rudnick, Coulter had attracted the interest of California-based Pimco, whose proposals won the backing of both Robinson and then Northern Ireland minister of finance Sammy Wilson.
Nama chairman Frank Daly told a meeting of the agency's Northern Advisory Committee that September of Pimco's interest. The minutes show that Cushnahan attended, but did not mention his contacts with the potential bidder.
He resigned from the committee a month later. Nama put the entire loan book up for auction as Project Eagle in early 2014. Its agent, investment bank Lazards, came up with three bidders: Pimco, Cerberus and Fortress, all US investment funds.
However, Pimco left the auction in March 2014 after sparking alarm when it told Nama that it had agreed to pay £5 million each in success fees to Cushnahan, Tughans and Brown Rudnick.
Tughans and Brown Rudnick switched to become advisers to Cerberus, which assured Nama that no one connected with the agency was working with it or its advisers, indicating that Cushnahan’s involvement had ended. The US company’s €1.6 billion bid won the day.
Cerberus then paid £15 million to Brown Rudnick, which split this 50:50 with Tughans. In late 2014 Coulter transferred £6 million of this to the Isle of Man without his firm’s knowledge, but afterwards returned the cash.
An audit discovered the transaction early last year and Coulter resigned, setting off the controversy. The row has focused on the money's likely destination. In a recorded conversation that BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight programme broadcast this week, Cushnahan claimed it was meant for him as he had been "secretly involved" with the Cerberus bid. That was the clearest indication yet that he believed that he was to benefit from Project Eagle.
Although he has said he had no contact with Cerberus, the two statements are not necessarily contradictory. Cushnahan could conceivably have worked “secretly” on the deal without talking to the winning bidder.
Cerberus, Nama and Brown Rudnick all denied any knowledge of anything improper in the bid, standing by what they have been saying all along.
The two people best-placed to give definitive answers, Cushnahan and Coulter, have yet to speak. Until they do, the Project Eagle row looks destined to drag on.