Project Eagle: Loans totalling €6bn sold to US firm Cerberus for €1.43bn
Well-connected former Belfast banker Frank Cushnahan central to story
Frank Cushnahan is a former member of Nama’s Northern Ireland advisory committee.
Stripping away its complexities, Project Eagle boils down this: Nama sold a collection of assets that ultimately belonged to the Irish people to US company Cerberus for €1.43 billion in 2014.
Those assets were loans to Northern Ireland-based developers totalling €6 billion, giving the buyer the right to demand repayment or take possession of the properties against which they were secured.
Some of the bigger borrowers involved included Paddy Kearney’s Kilmona, Noel Murphy’s MAR Properties and Frank Boyd’s Kilultagh Estates. Their properties were mostly commercial and located in the Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain, with a handful on the continent.
The evidence suggests that a number of parties were working behind the scenes on the the Project Eagle sale. They were Frank Cushnahan, a former member of Nama’s Northern Ireland advisory committee; Ian Coulter, the one-time head of Belfast solicitors Tughans; and Tuvi Keinan, a partner in US law firm Brown Rudnick.
Cushnahan, Coulter and a third man, accountant David Watters, who subsequently dropped out of the picture, dreamt up the plan to sell the debts due from Nama’s Northern Ireland borrowers in a single deal.
Pimco approached Nama directly in September that year. Shortly afterwards, the agency’s chairman, Frank Daly, told the Northern Ireland advisory committee that it intended to auction the loans. Cushnahan resigned from the committee in October.
Nama began the formal Project Eagle auction in January 2014. Pimco dropped out in March after informing the State agency that Brown Rudnick approached it seeking £15 million (€17.1 million) in fees that were to be split equally between the law firm, Cushnahan and Tughans.
Shortly before the deal was done in April, Cerberus hired Brown Rudnick and Tughans, although it assured Nama that no-one connected with the agency was working on its bid.
While he may not have been involved at that point, Cushnahan is central to the story. A former banker, he is a well known and well connected figure in Belfast. Robinson made it clear to a Northern Ireland Assembly inquiry into the same deal, that he held the businessman in high regard.
Wilson nominated Cushnahan to the Nama advisory committee. He previously held politically-backed positions with the Northern Ireland housing executive and Belfast harbour commissioners.
Cushnahan had links to half a dozen or so of the biggest Project Eagle borrowers – which he declared to Nama.
The lawyer resigned once his firm discovered the transaction. The controversy that followed when Independent TD Mick Wallace highlighted this midway through 2015, and suggested that the cash was destined for a number of business and political figures, led to the various investigations into Project Eagle.
Letters from Pimco and Brown Rudnick to the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) confirm that the US lawyers actually first sought a £16 million fee in June 2013. Cushnahan, who at that point was still a Nama’s adviser, was meant to share in this. Nama has said it had no knowledge of this.
Pimco’s letter detailing this also challenges Nama’s version of how the US company left the Project Eagle auction. The State agency has always argued that it left Pimco with no choice but to go. However, the company said that it left voluntarily and in no way sought the agency’s acquiescence to any fees deal.
Once Pimco left, Keinan approached Cerberus director Robert Falls to suggest that the company hire Brown Rudnick and Tughans to work on its bid for Project Eagle. Cerberus chief operating officer Mark Neporent told the PAC that his company took on both law firms on March 24th, 2014, and agreed to pay them £15 million.
The lawyers offered extra information on the loans gathered over the previous year. In his evidence, Neporent confirmed that as well as regarding this data as potentially useful, Cerberus also did not want it falling into any rival bidder’s hands.
ConflictJoseph F Ryan
Ryan’s letter states that Cushnahan “was prepared to bow out of the transaction”. However, that does not gel with Cushnahan’s own subsequent claim that the £6 million transferred to the Isle of Man was meant for him.
Nama announced that Cerberus was the winning bidder in early April. Shortly before this, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan met the fund’s representatives, something that drew criticism from the PAC in its report, which said the meeting was not “procedurally appropriate”.
When he appeared before its inquiry last autumn, the Minister rejected suggestions that he could have stopped the sale when the potential conflict of interest involving Cushnahan emerged.
Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy criticised Nama’s handling of that conflict in a report into Project Eagle published last September. He also estimated that the sale resulted in a probable loss of €220 million to the taxpayer. The PAC broadly backed this conclusion in its report.
The agency has several times since defended itself on both fronts, saying that it got the best value available for the loans and that it did everything it should have when it discovered Cushnahan’s involvement with Pimco.
The UK’s national crime agency (NCA) is investigating Coulter’s transfer of the £6 million to the Isle of Man. Last year, that led to the arrest of Cushnahan and Ronnie Hanna, Nama’s former head of asset recovery. Both were released on police bail.
Hanna confirmed in writing to the PAC in November that he had been arrested on suspicion of bribery, misconduct in public office and conspiracy to defraud. He was interviewed under police caution and vehemently denied these allegations. The police bail was subsequently lifted.
Cushnahan intimated on the same BBC Spotlight programme where he laid claim to the Isle of Man money that he and Hanna were close. The former Nama executive refused to comment when that was subsequently put to him.
McCarthy’s report shows that Hanna played a central role in a number of calls between Nama and Pimco in the run up to the US company’s exit from the auction.
The NCA inquiry is continuing. The next chapter in the story may well be the judicial investigation into the affair promised last year by the Government. Opposition parties, including Fianna Fáil, are likely to continue pushing for this.