Secret report on Nama's northern portfolio 'very useful' to potential bidders says former adviser

Former Nama adviser Brian Rowntree
Former Nama adviser Brian Rowntree Former Nama adviser Brian Rowntree

A SECRET report on Nama's Northern Ireland £1.2 billion property loan portfolio would have been very valuable to potential bidders, an ex-adviser to the Republic's bad bank has said.

Brian Rowntree said the "highly sensitive" report was shown to himself, fellow adviser and prominent Belfast businessman Frank Cushnahan and other Nama board members in March 2013.

Carried out by the University of Ulster, it was ordered by the toxic assets agency and a number of banks involved at a cost of £20,000.

It matched confidential details about properties in the so-called Project Eagle portfolio against emerging housing and development trends in Northern Ireland, including future values.

"If I was conducting due diligence on behalf of a buyer and I had that document I would be smiling," he told a parliamentary committee in Dublin investigating the sale.

The high-ranking public servant has called for a separate independent investigation into whether corporate governance or confidentiality around the controversial Project Eagle deal was breached.

Mr Rowntree said he is "still surprised to this day" that Nama decided to sell off all the property loans several months after they were shown the report.

Up until then, the entire focus had been on the "betterment of Northern Ireland" by getting value from the properties and "working against a fire sale", he told the Dáil Public Accounts Committee.

The University of Ulster report was commissioned to help them map out a plan. Asked what happened to it, he replied: "I have no idea."

In October that year, Mr Cushnahan resigned as a fellow adviser on Nama's Northern Ireland advisory board.

Mr Rowntree said he was told the resignation was for "personal reasons" and there was no discussion about him being replaced.

He said he was never told about a US investment firm pulling out of a bid for the portfolio a few months later after discovering alleged "success fees" or fixer payments of £15-£16 million for three parties behind the scenes.

Pimco said the money was to be shared equally by Mr Cushnahan, Brown Rudnick, a US law firm, and a managing partner of Tughans, a Belfast law firm subcontracted to assist in the deal, a report by the Republic's comptroller and auditor general has found.

Mr Cushnahan, who also declared links with six major debtors in the property loans portfolio, has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Rowntree told the Oireachtas committee hearing he would not have stood on the Nama advisory committee if he had links with debtors.

"I would have seen myself as conflicted," he said.

The first he learnt about the property portfolio being eventually sold to US investment fund Cerberus in March 2014 was in a phone call from Nama chairman Frank Daly the day before it was publicly announced, he said.

Cerberus had also appointed Brown Rudnick and Tughans to work on its bid.

"We got our P45 and told we were no longer required," Mr Rowntree said.

"It was frustrating more than disappointing. There was potential to provide a dividend to society."

Mr Rowntree told the committee he was furious, shocked and surprised when he read about allegations surrounding the sale of the portfolio.

The Project Eagle deal with Cerberus has been dogged by scandal for more than a year, including £7 million linked to it being found in an Isle of Man bank account.

Former managing partner of Tughans, Ian Coulter, resigned after it was unearthed.