Give Me a Crash Course In . . . Project Eagle
The Comptroller and Auditor General says Nama could have made up to €220 million more from the sale of its Northern Ireland portfolio
Eagle has landed: Frank Daly, Nama’s chairman. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Hasn’t The Irish Times given me a crash course in this before?
Indeed it has. You’ve a good memory. It was as recently as July, actually. But there have been a few developments since then.
Actually, my memory isn’t that good. Remind me: what is Project Eagle?
Project Eagle is the name given to the National Asset Management Agency’s Northern Ireland property-loans portfolio, which was sold in April 2014 to Cerberus, a US company, for about €1.6 billion.
So it was a big deal
It was the biggest sale of assets ever in Northern Ireland. It gave Cerberus the right to demand repayment of the debts, worth about €6 billion, or to take ownership of the properties involved.
So what’s the fuss about now?
The Comptroller and Auditor General, Seamus McCarthy, who is the State’s financial watchdog, published a report this week saying that Nama could have made up to €220 million more from the sale. He also criticised Nama’s response to its discovery in March 2014 that one of the bidders, Pimco, had agreed to pay £15 million (€17.5m) in “success fees” to the former Nama advisor Frank Cushnahan and two law firms, Tughans and Brown Rudnick. Pimco dropped out, but the lawyers switched sides to Cerberus, the winning bidder. Project Eagle has been mired in controversy since it emerged that Tughans’ managing partner, Ian Coulter, transferred £6 million (€7 million) in fees from the deal to an Isle of Man bank account without his firm’s knowledge. He resigned once it was discovered. The Independent TD Mick Wallace claimed in the Dáil last year that politicians and businesspeople were to benefit from the sale. This prompted a number of investigations, including the C&AG’s.
So a former Nama adviser was involved in the deal?
Nama and Cerberus have denied that Cushnahan was involved in the winning bid, even though the US company hired the same lawyers with whom he had agreed to share Pimco’s £15 million success fee. Despite this, BBC’s Spotlight programme – broadcast last week – recorded Cushnahan claiming that the £6 million deposited in the Isle of Man was meant for him. Before Nama’s board agreed to sell Project Eagle to Cerberus, the company gave assurances that no one connected with the agency was working on its bid. The C&AG says Nama should have been concerned and that it should have gone to the National Treasury Management Agency’s compliance experts and written to Cushnahan for an explanation.
When did Cushnahan work for Nama?
The DUP nominated him to the agency’s Northern Ireland advisory committee in 2011. He resigned in October 2013, at which time he would have known that Nama was planning to sell Project Eagle.
What is Nama saying?
Fundamentally that the C&AG got his sums wrong and that it got the best price possible for the loans when they were sold. Chairman Frank Daly says Nama would be unlikely to get a buyer now in the light of the UK’s Brexit vote. The agency says it conducted the sale properly.
Are there other investigations?
The UK national crime agency has been investigating it since 2015. It arrested and released two men earlier this year. The Northern Ireland Assembly’s finance committee held its own inquiry; its interim report in March criticised Nama, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, Cerberus and Pimco. But the future of that inquiry is in doubt after it emerged that its chairman, Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay, coached a witness.
What happens next?
The Committee of Public Accounts is likely to carry out its own inquiry based on the report; Daly and Nama chief executive Brendan McDonagh are likely to appear before it. The Government is preparing a separate, broader investigation.