Project Eagle: Nama officials face grilling at PAC

Two powerful State agencies, one of the biggest sales of State-owned loans, and plenty of questions.
Project Eagle: Nama officials face grilling at PAC

Officials with the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) attended the high-profile Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and faced a grilling over the damning criticism of Project Eagle.

The portfolio of Northern Ireland property-linked debts was originally valued at £4.5bn (€5.3bn) but they were bought by Nama for £2bn (to help Irish banks lend again) and eventually sold for £1.3bn (€1.6bn).

The big question is just who gained from the property debts offloaded at knock-down prices to US vulture fund Cerberus? It seems it wasn’t the taxpayer.

In fact, the taxpayer may have suffered losses of £190m (€220m) or more, according to the State’s spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), who also appeared before PAC yesterday.

Seamus McCarthy, the C&AG, has directly challenged Nama over how it handled the sale of Project Eagle. Not one for muddling his words, Mr McCarthy’s report suggests the sales process was rushed, it lacked detail for potential bidders and, with all loans sold in one bunch, resulted in the £190m loss.

“I feel I do not have sufficient assurance that a different marketing strategy, or different timing of the sale, could not have resulted in Nama achieving a higher price from the sale of the loans,” said Mr McCarthy.

But the greater concern is that little was done when it emerged that businessman Frank Cushnahan in the North, advising Nama about its deal, was set to pocket £5m in a success fee, along with lawyers Brown Rudnick and Belfast solicitors Tughans. The latter two firms went on to advise the winning bidder Cerberus about the deal, once underbidder Pimco had moved aside.

The crux of the issue raised by Mr McCarthy is why nobody shouted stop, why alarm bells did not ring out in Nama when success or ‘fixer’ fees were formally linked to the Pimco bid in March 2014.

The same question will be put to Finance Minister Michael Noonan next week when he is quizzed about failing to halt the Project Eagle deal when the potential conflict of interest arose then.

Mr McCarthy says Nama took a “narrow view” of the issue and basically should have done more. They should have asked Mr Cushnahan about the matter, they could have sought professional advice, he maintains.

Nama admitted to PAC that, if the agency had known what it knows now, it would have removed Mr Cushnahan and “terminated” his role as adviser from its Northern Ireland committee.

Too many questions now hang around Project Eagle. And it’s not just the damning C&AG report which suggests that.

Mr Daly yesterday said the agency was satisfied it managed Mr Cushnahan’s conflicts of interest appropriately. Mr Cushnahan was a not a Nama insider and he was peripheral as far as Nama was concerned.

Throughout proceedings, the two State agencies stood their ground as TDs attempted to get answers.

Mr McCarthy maintains his office had the expertise for its inquiry into Project Eagle while Nama claims the report fell short of the standard required and used in the private sector. Nama chairman Frank Daly also insists Project Eagle achieved “value for money”.

The irony of course is that, currently, the Government officially accepts both sides and stands by both State bodies.

PAC chairman Sean Fleming will lead further investigations into the Project Eagle deal, producing a report by Christmas. By then, it is likely that a fresh full inquiry agreed by the Dáil will have been launched into the complex circumstances around Project Eagle.

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