Has the £7.5m puzzle finally been solved?

Former Tughans managing partner Ian Coulter. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

The £7.5 million question of the summer was undoubtedly 'who were the intended beneficiaries of that chunk of money that was sent to an offshore bank account by a Belfast law firm'?

The 'success fee' paid to Tughans' then managing partner Ian Coulter was for helping to facilitate the £1.3 billion deal by US investment fund Cerberus to buy Nama's northern portfolio, dubbed Project Eagle.

The £7.5 million was paid to Tughans via Brown Rudnick, one of the law firms used by Cerberus.

The story being closely stuck to by sources close to those involved in facilitating the deal between Nama and Cerberus is that there were four direct beneficiaries of the money - Ian Coulter, a prominent businessman, an accountant and a property developer. A politician was not one of them.

These men, it is claimed, believed that a private buyer such as Cerberus would offer a better future for Northern Ireland.

Debtors would have more chance of negotiating a quick exit from the clutches of Cerberus than from Nama, the more cumbersome 'bad bank' run by the Irish government.

It was all for the good of Northern Ireland and of course there was the potential of a nice little multi-million pound earner at the end, should all go to plan.

All did not go to plan.

Mr Coulter and some of the partners at Tughans could not agree on how money should be distributed. He left, the Law Society was informed and an investigation began.

Mr Coulter could have broken the law if he had shared a 'fixers fee' with third parties.

According to sources close to the deal, he failed to officially disclose that he intended that some of the £7.5 million success fee was to be made to third parties who were not qualified solicitors.

If the payments had taken place this could be an offence under Article 28 of the Solicitors (Northern Ireland) Order 1976.

Payments to third parties should typically be declared in a fee document and paid from a law firm's office account. The Isle of Man bank account was not an office account.

Then there is Pimco, who had been in the race to buy the portfolio alongside Cerberus.

Pimco had used businessman Frank Cushnahan for advice via Brown Rudnick and Tughans, where he had an office. But he had been an advisor to Nama just months before.

When the chairman of Nama was alerted to Mr Cushnahan's role in the Pimco bid it was asked to withdraw.

Shortly after Pimco left, Cerberus told Nama that it was bringing Brown Rudnick and Tughans on board as strategic advisers. The US firm already had A&l Goodbody and London firm Linklaters acting for it.

Frank Daly, chairman of Nama, argued that it had no control over who Cerberus hired as advisers, and stressed that their only concern was ensuring that Mr Cushnahan was not involved in the successful bid. The US fund assured them of this.

And the elephant in the room remains. Was any of the money directly or indirectly intended for a politician?

Those who helped drive the deal through say no. There are any number of investigations, criminal and political, trying to ascertain if this is true or not.

It is clearer now than two months ago who the £7.5 million was intended for. The money remains untouched, perhaps earning a bit of interest while we await to hear what was actually done to earn the sum.

There are, in short, still plenty of pieces of the £7.5 million puzzle that don't quite fit.


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