Pique oil: the yoga guru and the Caribbean lawsuit

 

A very Irish drama is playing out in a distant part of the British empire, with the businessman and former yoga guru Tony Quinn at its centre. PAUL CULLENreports from Road Town, Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands

THE COURTROOM IS bedecked with Union Jacks, and the registrar starts proceedings by saying, “God save the queen,” but there is a distinctly Irish tinge to the case being heard on this tiny island by the commercial division of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court.

The presiding judge, Justice Edward Bannister, has the tricky task of deciding who is right about a mass of claims and counterclaims being made by the present and former directors of International Natural Energy (INE), which struck oil in Belize with the financial help of scores of small investors from Ireland.

Two of the company’s Irish founders, Sheila McCaffrey and Susan Morrice, are at loggerheads over control of a company that has earned hundreds of millions of euro in oil revenue over the past five years.

And then there is Tony Quinn, the yoga guru, health-food shop owner, hypnotherapist and now INE director, who has the most to win or lose from the proceedings. Quinn was given 64,000 shares in the company in 2006 – this is not in dispute by either side – and stands to earn $23 million (€18 million) under an agreement reached with INE last August to buy them back. But Justice Bannister has stopped this transaction going ahead until the case brought by McCaffrey is dealt with.

In her claim, McCaffrey alleges the company is being mismanaged, with money being diverted to benefit Morrice and Quinn. She says Quinn’s shares were never validly allotted. The two deny her claims and say she was removed because she had become impossible to work with and was unsuited to running the business as it grew.

The case, which is being heard in the British Virgin Islands because INE is incorporated nearby in the Caribbean, is being watched closely by the small investors, some of whom hope to launch a derivative action on foot of McCaffrey’s action. In spite of its success in striking oil, the company has yet to pay a dividend, although two years ago it did release loans to some shareholders under strict conditions.

Many of the shareholders who borrowed at the height of the Celtic Tiger to invest in the company are now under immense financial pressure and desperate for a payout. A handful of the disaffected shareholders made the long trip to the Caribbean this week to observe the trial. Quinn, his hair bleached and his complexion ruddied by the tropical sun, had a shorter trip, having flown over with his partner, Eve, from his home in the Bahamas.

Lots of companies get into dispute, and friends fall out, particularly when large sums of money are involved. What distinguishes this case is the ties that originally linked the Irish directors and shareholders, all of which lead back to Quinn and his ideas about the power of the mind to influence events.

For 50 years big oil companies prospected for oil in Belize with no success. Then INE’s subsidiary Belize Natural Energy, a minnow in the sector, came along and struck black gold at the first attempt.

The fairy tale started after Morrice and McCaffrey met on the White House lawn in the mid-1990s, at one of Bill Clinton’s drives to promote investment in Northern Ireland. They joined forces with Paul Marriott, an English drilling contractor, and secured funding from investors who, like them, had attended Quinn’s Educo Mind Power seminars. More than 300 people stumped up at least €40,000, many of them borrowing from friends, family and banks to do so.

There was even an Irish connection in the transportation used to bring the drilling rig to Belize, when Marriott found space on a Fyffes banana boat returning from the UK to Central America with an empty load.

“It was unexpected in our business that the first well you drill in a country with 50 years of dry wells would produce a discovery so fast,” Marriott said in court this week. Last year he sued the company and reached a settlement.

Most people would put such an oil find down to luck and science. But some of those who attended Quinn’s €18,500-a-pop seminars believe one of the reasons they struck oil arose from the application of his techniques to focus the mind and remove doubts and negative thoughts.

“I believe that thought, or belief, can affect matter,” says Ralph McCutcheon, an osteopath from Holywood, Co Down, who invested in the venture. “I did therefore believe that our belief, as developed at the seminars, helped us find oil in Belize. Of course, there’s science and geology involved, but the concentration of thought helped direct our efforts.”

Even though he is now prominent among the rebel shareholders who are critical of Quinn’s involvement in the oil company, McCutcheon says he benefited from attending the seminars.

“I was coming out of a divorce, and at a low ebb in my life, when one of my patients mentioned them. I decided to give it a go. For me, the results were impressive. I regained my energy, I could operate on only four hours’ sleep a night and I rebuilt my practice.

But McCutcheon believes some of those who attended the seminars overestimated their abilities and are now hugely in debt having borrowed too heavily for business ventures.

Quinn wasn’t involved in Belize when the oil was found, but his influence in the company grew after he was given shares. Marriott, in his evidence, said he was “taken aback” at Quinn’s growing influence and gave it as a factor behind the growing divisions between the other directors.

Quinn flew here this week by private jet from his home in Paradise Island on the Bahamas, accompanied by his South African partner Eve and housekeeper Mary Power. Outside, stray chickens wandered around in the island heat, but inside the the air-conditioned courtroom, the atmosphere was glacial as both sides settled down for this latest round of their dispute.

This week the court has heard evidence about a series of fractious meetings between the directors in 2007 and 2008 at which efforts were made to resolve their growing differences. A new operating agreement that centralised control among the directors was introduced under disputed circumstances. Some of the directors shifted allegiances back and forth as the dispute played out, and there is little agreement between the two sides about what happened behind closed doors. As Justice Bannister delicately put it this week: “The idea that everything in this case happened as it was stated to happen requires some testing.”

McCaffrey sounds to have been the biggest loser, having received nothing for her shareholding. She was removed as a director and her home in Belize was searched by the police on foot of a company complaint. With limited resources, she struggled for a number of years to get her case into court. She described her evidence to court this week as “a snapshot of the living hell” she had endured over the past five years.

Whatever the outcome of the current case, it won’t mark the end of the disputes. The case taken by another director, Jean Cornec, over €11.7 million he says he is due for his shares is scheduled to be heard in Denver, Colorado, next year. Quinn has been ordered by the Irish courts to attend that case.

Meanwhile, the disaffected shareholders are still hoping to have their day in court.

Mind, body, spirit: the Tony Quinn way

Anyone who lives in Dublin and is of a certain age is likely to remember Tony Quinn, although he has lived for years in the Bahamas.

Through his Blueprint for Living newsletters, which were widely circulated in the capital, his frequent appearances on The Late Late Show and his role as a mind coach for the boxer Steve Collins, Quinn was a familiar, if controversial, presence on the Irish landscape for almost four decades.

His latest incarnation is as an oilman, and his role as a director of International Natural Energy has come under scrutiny in successive court actions taken by former directors.

The 64-year-old was one of the first people to make yoga popular in Ireland, and he opened the first of a string of health-food shops on Eccles Street in Dublin in 1976. After branching into hypnotherapy he built on the publicity he received over his involvement with Collins by organising large seminars promoting his Educo system of “mind technology”. At their height, prices for higher-level seminars ranged up to €60,000.

Issues that have come under scrutiny include his claims to have healing powers, the devotion he enjoys from his closest confidantes, the financial hardship of some of those who borrowed heavily to attend his seminars and his latest involvement in INE.

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