The role of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) is to serve as a public watchdog in assisting the Dáil to hold the Government to account, not least for the actions of its departments and agencies on aspects of public spending.
How the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) handled the sale of its portfolio of Northern Ireland property loans has caused political controversy and growing public concern. Did the agency achieve maximum value for money for the taxpayer in the sale of the Project Eagle loan book to US investment company Cerberus? The C&AG in a detailed – and indeed damning – report has carefully scrutinised the sale. In essence, he concludes Nama struck a poor bargain and failed to secure adequate value for the sale.
Although not a property specialist, the C&AG is well placed to have an informed general view of the property market and of the details of the Project Eagle sale. But the comptroller's valuation estimates have been vigorously contested by Nama which questions the assumptions on which they are based. Nama chairman Frank Daly insisted the price obtained for the sale to Cerberus was "the best achievable outcome".
The C&AG's report sets out the facts surrounding the sale. These are now in the public domain, leaving the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) well positioned to elicit further information by calling witnesses to give evidence. The C&AG has set out a detailed narrative of what happened; PAC's role is to examine the reasons and rationale why.
Why Nama reversed its strategy and opted to sell the properties involved as a single portfolio? Why, in doing so, it adopted a different approach to its other large sales? Why it went ahead with the sale to Cerberus following the earlier withdrawal of rival bidder Pimco in controversial circumstances? And why multi-million euro success fees involving, among others, a member of its Northern Ireland Advisory Committee did not raise greater concern?
In a statement yesterday, the Government recognised the significance of maintaining public confidence in Nama and its operations, and the need to ensure “all matters of public concern are addressed in a speedy and effective manner”. Quite how that is done awaits the outcome of talks with Opposition leaders where a consensus may be hard to establish.
The scope for a major inquiry is limited, given that key events occurred outside the State’s jurisdiction and are the subject of criminal investigations in Northern Ireland.
In the late 1990s, PAC – also assisted by a detailed report from the Comptroller and Auditor General – conducted a highly successful investigation into bogus “non-resident” bank accounts. Two decades later in the case of Project Eagle, it is facing an equally testing investigatory challenge. As Nama squares up against the C&AG, for both sides the stakes are high.