Allegations of political corruption and bribery relating to the North’s largest ever property deal have multiplied in the past week and are now to be investigated by Britain’s version of the FBI, the National Crime Agency.
The North’s First Minister Peter Robinson has said that no one in his family or his party sought to gain by “one penny” from the purchase of a property portfolio sold by the 26-County state’s National Assets Management Authority, NAMA.
NAMA is the body set up by the Dublin government in the wake of the 2008 financial crash to deal with toxic assets. It agreed the ‘Project Eagle’ portfolio sale in April 2014, the biggest and most controversial deal it has done to date. It sold the lot of 850 properties for 1.5 billion pounds after a discount of approximately 70%.
Mr Robinson has insisted that he first became aware of allegations of seven million pounds being lodged in an offshore account for a northern politician or party after independent Wexford TD Mick Wallace made that allegation in the Dublin parliament earlier this month.
Mr Robinson insisted the DUP had not ‘crossed a line’ by seeking to promote the sale of the NAMA portfolio, first to the Pimco investment fund, and then when it withdrew from the deal to another US vulture fund, Cerberus.
“Not one penny was coming to anybody in my family or in the party as a result of this deal. All of the Ministers who were involved, whether they were in my party or not, the only thing that they were ever going to get out of this was to see on the skyline that the building cranes were moving again,” Mr Robinson told BBC television.
Unionist hardliner Jim Allister has drafted a schedule of 21 detailed questions which he says must be answered in connection with the sale. Prominent loyalist Jamie Bryson has also made allegations about the transaction. Lawyers for the DUP have described those claims as “defamatory” and have threatened legal action against the flags protest leader.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
NAMA’s chairman, Frank Daly, told the Dublin parliament’s public accounts committee (PAC) this week that among those receiving “fee arrangements” was Frank Cushnahan, who resigned from the NAMA several months before the deal with Cerberus was agreed.
Daly said Pimco was forced to withdraw its offer for the huge property portfolio after it revealed that third-party fee arrangements were in place, saying the body was appalled by the revelation.
He added that the investment house told NAMA that fifteen million pounds was due to be paid to Cushnahan, an American law firm, and a managing partner of Tughans, a Belfast-based law firm. Tughans has said Ian Coulter, its former managing partner, “diverted” the money into the offshore account without the knowledge of other staff.
All of the private firms involved in the asset sale have denied wrongdoing.
Gareth Robinson, one of the sons of Peter Robinson, has also denied that he or his PR company had any involvement in the sale. He said although he has carried out work for Tughans in the past, no representatives of his PR company “facilitated or were in any way involved in the sale of Nama assets to Cerberus”.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness welcomed the NCA probe and said a judicial inquiry may need to be established to examine the controversy.
He said he had had no knowledge of an ‘informal’ meeting between Peter Robinson, Cerberus chairman, former US Vice President Dan Quayle and Coulter.
Mr McGuinness, who met Mr Quayle in a ministerial capacity later last year, said the March meeting - just 10 days before the Cerberus deal was struck - could not have been official.
“If such a meeting took place it was not a formal or official meeting with OFMDFM as it was not processed thought the department. I was not aware of and had not agreed to any such meeting in respect of the joint office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.”
Independent TD Mick Wallace has said he will disclose new material around the ‘Project Eagle’ transaction next Wednesday that will support his call for an independent inquiry into all of NAMA’s activities.
Mr Wallace said the Public Accounts Committee did not have the mechanisms or sufficient powers to investigate forensically NAMA’s ten-figure property dealings.