Lawyers for Sean Dunne and his wife, Gayle Killilea, said on Monday the property mogul turned millions of euro worth of property to his spouse out of love and to assure her future, not evade creditors, on the opening day of their American civil trial.
"This is a case about a man who sought to provide security to his wife and children and did," Mr Dunne's attorney, Brian Spears, told the 10-person jury hearing the case at US district in New Haven, Connecticut. "I'd ask you, if you accumulated that level of wealth, would it be wrong to share a portion of that wealth with your loved ones?''
Mr Spears and attorney Peter Nolin, who is representing Ms Killilea, attributed the wealth transfers in part to Ireland's prohibition on pre-nuptial agreements, insisting he was solvent at the time. The couple, they contended, had discussed such an agreement before their 2004 marriage, and then handwritten one out during a vacation the next year in Thailand.
Mr Nolin downplayed the secrecy surrounding their purchase of Walford in Dublin 4, reputedly the most expensive house in Ireland, for €58 million in 2005, saying they did so in part to avoid publicity. Mr Dunne and Ms Killilea are separated.
Thomas Curran, counsel for Richard Coan, Mr Dunne's US bankruptcy trustee, painted an entirely different picture of Mr Dunne's property and asset transfers, characterising them as complex ruse to protect his wealth from creditors after his high-flying property business collapsed in the years before and after the 2008 financial crisis.
The defendant is asking jurors to believe that Mr Dunne turned over tens of millions of dollars worth of assets to his wife “for, as he put it, ironing the odd shirt and cooking the odd meal”, Mr Curran said.
Evidence presented at trial would contradict the defence’s portrayal of Mr Dunne as solvent at the time of the transfers and show that he in fact controlled American business ventures in wife’s name set up after the financial meltdown, the jury was told.
The case stems from Mr Dunne’s 2013 bankruptcy filing in Connecticut, where he and his wife moved after his business empire collapsed. Mr Coan, the trustee assigned by the US department of justice to liquidate Mr Dunne’s estate and pay off creditors, brought the action to recover properties he contends were improperly transferred to Ms Killilea and others for the benefit of Nama and others.
Mr Coan began his testimony on Monday morning outlining his role in the case. He told jurors he has served as trustee in 10,000 to 15,000 bankruptcies. Most such cases require a single meeting to distribute assets, Coan said.
In Mr Dunne’s case, the parties held five between June 2013 and February 2014, the most in his long career, but still failed to reach a resolution, he said.
At several points during the proceeding, US district court judge Jeffrey A Meyer closed the courtroom during discussion of a family court matter in Ireland. Closing the courtroom is unusual in the US and both legal teams declined to discuss the matter.
Both sides came well represented. The plaintiffs had five lawyers present, while six people, most of them apparently attorneys, sat at the defendant’s table.
Mr Dunne is scheduled to testify at the trial, which is expected to last several weeks.