The National Asset Management Agency (Nama), US companies Cerberus and Pimco, and the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, all came under fire this week in a report by the Northern Ireland Assembly Finance and Personnel Committee into the Project Eagle affair.
The row dates back to January 2014 when Nama offered its Northern Ireland property loans for sale as Project Eagle, attracting bids from three US players: Cerberus, whose €1.6 billion offer succeeded, Pimco and Fortress.
Subsequent to that, Ian Coulter, managing partner of Belfast lawyers, Tughans, which worked on the winning bid, transferred £6 million (€6.4 million) in fees from the deal to an Isle of Man account without his firm's knowledge.
He resigned once this was discovered, setting in train a controversy that has led to investigations by the Stormont committee and the UK's National Crime Agency. This week's report raises questions for many of the players:
Why did Nama allow the Project Eagle auction to continue when it found former advisor Frank Cushnahan was involved in one of the bids?
In March 2014 Nama found that Pimco had agreed to pay £5 million each to Frank Cushnahan, who had resigned from Nama's Northern Ireland Advisory Committee the previous November, US lawyers Brown Rudnick and Belfast solicitors, Tughans.
Pimco left the auction and the law firms switched sides to Cerberus. Once Nama satisfied itself that Cushnahan was no longer involved, it carried on with the auction. However, Cushnahan has since claimed he was involved and that the £6 million transferred to the Isle of Man was meant as payment for this.
What were the exact circumstances surrounding Pimco’s exit?
Nama says that once Pimco told it of the fees deal, it left the company with no choice but to exit the Project Eagle auction. Pimco on the other hand says it left voluntarily after it informed Nama.
To muddy the waters further, a spokeswoman for the company said last summer that it never actually hired Cushnahan or the two law firms.
The Stormont inquiry did discover that Pimco met Cushnahan and Coulter in 2013. At the same time, it was one of two interested buyers on whose behalf Brown Rudnick lawyer, Tuvi Keinan, wrote to the Northern Ireland Executive's Minister of Finance and Personnel, SammyWilson.
It was clearly interested in buying the loans and has never given a full explanation of the nature of its arrangement with Cushnahan. Pimco has since ignored questions from the press and refused to appear before the finance committee.
Why did Cerberus hire advisers associated with a tainted bid, particularly as it already had its own lawyers on board?
Cerberus maintains that it acted in accordance with the highest standards and expected the same of its advisors. However, it hired Brown Rudnick and Tughans late in the day and despite their connection with Cushnahan, even though it already had a legal team.
After its bid succeeded, it paid £15 million to Brown Rudnick, which split that with Tughans. The £6 million that Coulter moved to the Isle of Man was part of this.
Should the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan have halted the auction once Nama learned of Cushnahan’s involvement with Pimco?
The committee’s report questions why the Republic’s Minister for Finance did not use his power to get Nama to halt the process once it learned of Cushnahan’s links to the Pimco bid and says that he should have informed the Northern Ireland Executive. However, the Department of Finance says Mr Noonan did not have the power to suspend the sale.
Why did Cushnahan seem to suggest that former Nama executive Ronnie Hanna, aided Northern Ireland debtors?
Cushnahan was also recorded by BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme saying he contacted former Nama head of asset recovery, Ronnie Hanna, to ensure that some of the agency’s debtors could “keep the lights on”. That is taken to mean that he intervened with Hanna to ensure that the agency did not appoint receivers to some of the businesses involved.
Nama says that no individual executive could decide on their own whether or not to put debtors into receivership. Mr Hanna refused to comment when contacted last week.
He, along with Cerberus, Pimco, Cushnahan, Brown Rudnick and Nama, has refused to appear before the committee.