O’Donnells fought four-year battle over €1 bn property empire

Solicitor owned office blocks in Dublin, Washington and London

Brian O Donnell (right) pictured arriving at the Four Courts with his son, Blake  for a Supreme Court judgement last month. Photograph:  Collins

Brian O Donnell (right) pictured arriving at the Four Courts with his son, Blake for a Supreme Court judgement last month. Photograph: Collins

 

Solicitor Brian O’Donnell and his family have been fighting a legal battle over his €1 billion property empire and upmarket home on Vico Road in Killiney for four years.

O’Donnell was a partner with leading commercial law firm, William Fry, before he went out on his own around the year 2000. He set up shop as Brian O’Donnell and Co in a specially renovated office in a period building on Dublin’s Merrion Square.

He and his wife, Dr Mary Patricia O’Donnell, began investing in property, first in Ireland and then overseas. They amassed a portfolio of office buildings and commercial premises in Dublin, London, Stockholm and Washington.

They also bought and restored a mansion at Oughterard, Co Galway and owned a skiing chalet in the French resort of Courcheval.

Some of the assets included the headquarters of the UK Department of Education in Westminster in London, an office block on Pennsylvania Avenue, a stone’s throw from the White House in Washington, and their family home at Gorse Hill, Vico Road, Killiney, for which they paid €1.4 million in 1998.

The properties were once valued at almost €1.1 billion, but the couple and their various companies racked up debts of close to €900 million when buying them in the first place.

In common with many others during that period, the O’Donnells were left holding large debts secured on properties whose values were falling.

Bank of Ireland went to the High Court in January 2011 to force them to repay €69.5 million property-related loans. The lender and the O’Donnells settled the case the following March.

However, the bank returned to court that December and got a €71.5 million judgement against them. The O’Donnells had failed to make two repayments, totalling €28 million, agreed in the March deal.

They had to sell a number of premises, including the one on Pennsylvania Avenue and the Westminster office block. O’Donnell complained that the bank’s actions had prompted other lenders to move, and forced his businesses to sell assets for less than what they might otherwise have fetched.

Their next move was to seek bankruptcy in the UK, where they would have been discharged, debt-free, after a year, compared to 12 years in the Republic. That ultimately failed, but only after a British high court hearing in which the judge questioned the evidence given by the couple to support their claim that London was their main centre of interest.

This was not the first time that their actions had been questioned in court. At a hearing in Dublin in July 2012, Bank of Ireland accused the O’Donnells of attempting to put €225 million in assets beyond its reach.

At this stage the bank was trying to take possession of Gorse Hill. The couple claimed that the house was actually held in trust for their four adult children, Alexandra, Blaise, Blake and Bruce.

However, the bank maintained that it belonged to an Isle of Man company, Vico Ltd, as part of a tax planning scheme. It appointed Tom Kavanagh of Dublin firm Kavanagh Fennell as receiver to that company.

The legal battle’s focus then shifted to the family home. In August of 2013, the four O’Donnell children failed to get the High Court to prevent the bank from taking over the property. The following May, they appealed to the Supreme Court.

However, this too failed, and the jig appeared to be well and truly up last month when the courts told the family that they would have to leave Vico Road by March.

Timeline:

January 2011 - Bank of Ireland sues the O’Donnells for the repayment of €69.5 million in property loans. The case is settled the following March.

December 2011 - Bank of Ireland gets a €71.5 million judgement against the couple after they fail to repay €28 million due under the March settlement.

March 2012 - The O’Donnells file for bankruptcy in London in an effort to avoid the Republic’s tougher bankruptcy regime.

July 2012 - Bank appoints Tom Kavanagh as receiver to their house on Vico Road, Killiney

December 2012 - A London court dismisses their UK bankruptcy petition.

August 2013- O’Donnell children, Alexandra, Blaise, Blake and Bruce, lose their High Court challenge against the bank’s attempts to seize the Vico Road home.

May 2014 - O’Donnell children appeal to the Supreme Court.

February 2015 - O’Donnells told to leave Vico Road by March.