Motion re. Report of the Committee of Public Accounts re. National Asset Management Agency’s sale of Project Eagle – Minister Noonan – Opening Speech
Motion re. Report of the Committee of Public Accounts re. National Asset Management Agency’s sale of Project Eagle
Minister Noonan – Opening Speech
29 March 2017
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I want to thank the Public Accounts Committee Chairman for presenting this report to the Dáil today and the Committee members for their efforts in producing this report.
As a former Chairman of the PAC, I fully appreciate the important role the Committee plays.
As you are aware, I have taken issue with certain conclusions expressed in the report regarding meetings with Cerberus, which is where I will begin my discussion. I will then touch on the report more generally and will conclude with a few words regarding the establishment of a Commission of Investigation which will no doubt form part of today’s discussion.
Criticism of the Minister for Finance
Turning to the report’s criticism of my involvement in the transaction.
I am encouraged that the PAC has accepted my long-standing position, derived from law, that in these circumstances, it was not within the powers of the Minister for Finance to direct NAMA to halt the sales process.
However, I am disappointed that, having resiled from this previously held position, the PAC has conjured up other unjustified and unfounded criticisms of me and my officials; that these criticisms were leaked to the press, presumably by a member of the PAC; and that these criticisms found their way into the final report.
I can only assume the information was leaked in an effort to secure its inclusion in the final report – an action which unfortunately has politicised and compromised the integrity of the PAC itself. The very fact that there was not unanimous agreement by PAC members raises the question whether such a criticism can be accepted.
I and my Department refute absolutely the claims in the report that I and my officials acted inappropriately in meeting with Cerberus in March 2014.
Following the leak and prior to publication of the report, I wrote to the PAC Chairman outlining my strong objection to any such finding against me or my officials.
I remain shocked that the PAC disregarded due process and did not offer me or my officials the opportunity to discuss the PAC’s concerns – even after requesting such an opportunity prior to the report’s finalisation.
The Minute of the Meeting with Cerberus is available on the Department of Finance website – it is there to read for all who are interested.
It is accepted that there is a clear legal separation between the Minister for Finance and NAMA’s commercial operations.
It is entirely appropriate that I, as Minister for Finance, would meet with the Chairman of a major international investment fund, a former US Secretary of the Treasury, at his request whilst he was in Dublin on business.
It is also entirely appropriate that my officials would meet with representatives of a firm which has a general investment interest in Irish assets.
As the published documentation confirms, the meeting was arranged at the request of Cerberus and was high level in nature.
It would be very unusual and indeed inappropriate for any Minister for Finance not to meet with such individuals and firms. I and other Ministers have many similar meetings in the course of our ministerial duties.
The meetings did not alter the fact that neither I nor my officials were involved in the Project Eagle sales process – which I believe the PAC acknowledges.
Had the PAC invited me or the officials who attended to discuss these meetings, they would have better understood this position prior to publishing their report.
Criticism re openness of the Minister & Officials
It is disingenuous for certain PAC members and the PAC Chairman to question my integrity and that of Finance officials accusing us of not being forthcoming in our testimony.
I would like to set out the facts that will reveal what has been nothing less than political grandstanding by certain members of the Committee.
In response to parliamentary questions from Deputy Michael McGrath on the 14th of July 2015 and 24th of September 2015, I provided information regarding the March 2014 meetings with Cerberus.
On the 3rd of November 2015 all documents relating to the meetings with Cerberus were released to a journalist under a Freedom of Information request.
On the 20th of November 2015, during their first meeting on the matter, Department of Finance officials provided records relating to Project Eagle to the C&AG, including all documents relating to the meetings with Cerberus in March 2014.
The meetings with Cerberus were not an area of concern in the C&AG report on Project Eagle published on the 5th of August 2016. He was provided with information regarding the meetings and never mentioned any meeting with Cerberus so we must conclude that this meeting caused him no concern.
On the 6th of October 2016 during my appearance before the PAC, committee members raised no questions regarding meetings with Cerberus.
On the 12th of October 2016, following my appearance, the PAC requested certain follow up information from me. No information was requested regarding the meetings with Cerberus.
On the 3rd of November 2016 I responded to the PAC request for information. Unsolicited and in the spirit of openness to assist the PAC in its work, I provided all records which had been previously provided to the C&AG in 2015. This included all documents relating to the Cerberus meetings. This correspondence was published on the Department of Finance website and remains publicly available.
On the 10th of November 2016 Department of Finance officials – each of whom had attended the meetings with Cerberus in March 2014 – appeared before PAC. The PAC, which at this point had received the full documentation related to the meetings raised no question regarding these meetings during the many hours of questioning.
On the 21st November 2016 the PAC wrote to me requesting full details of my meeting with Cerberus in March 2014.
On the 8th of December 2016 I responded to the PAC request indicating that the details of these meetings had already been provided to the PAC on 3 November 2016.
It is clear that I and my officials – contrary to allegations made by some PAC members – were forthcoming and have nothing to hide. We have provided the information regarding these meetings a number of times to various parties and no questions were ever raised.
Indeed, I want to take specific issue with comments made by the Chair of the PAC in a News at One interview on the day the report was published. Deputy Fleming noted in relation to my appearance before the PAC that I “chose not to be open and upfront”. In his interview he gave the impression that I had deliberately concealed the fact that I had met Mr John Snow of Cerberus and that this was why the PAC did not ask me about the meeting during the five hours of evidence I gave before them. The facts I have just outlined give the true position. Long before I appeared at the PAC, Deputy Fleming’s colleague, Deputy McGrath had been informed twice in PQ replies of my meeting with Cerberus and the C&AG had been informed in the course of his scrutiny of Project Eagle. If the Chairman of the PAC was doing his job properly, he should have established these facts before he made allegations against me. In light of the false allegations made by Deputy Fleming in his RTE interview on the day the report was published, I am formally requesting that he clarify his position at the next meeting of the PAC. I would ask the Deputy to withdraw this comment and reflect this on the record of this House.
As regards the meeting with Cerberus, I and my officials have no concerns about the meetings. The meetings were publicly disclosed. The C&AG raised no issue with the meetings. The PAC raised no questions about the meetings during our appearances.
Yet criticism of these meetings was conjured up by members of the PAC at the last minute. This is criticism which I cannot accept.
Criticism of NAMA
Now turning to NAMA.
Many of the judgements in the report regarding NAMA have been well rehearsed in the context of the C&AG report. I recognise that the PAC report does not claim that NAMA made a “probable loss” as was asserted in the C&AG report. This is a very important fact.
I have stated consistently that I support the work of NAMA. I have confidence that the Board of NAMA are achieving their commercial mandate in accordance with the NAMA Act.
I have also consistently stated that I respect the office of the C&AG. My position regarding both bodies is unchanged following the publication of the PAC report.
The NAMA Chairman and CEO are both dedicated public servants who have worked in the public interest throughout their distinguished careers.
Neither are strangers to defending their own position. In the time available I do not propose to address every aspect of the PAC report. However, it is notable that NAMA has disputed the suggestion in the report that an alternative monetisation strategy would have delivered a better financial outcome.
It is fashionable to criticise NAMA. It is particularly fashionable for certain developers and their camp followers to do so. I note further criticism of NAMA in a Sunday Newspaper last weekend. Before Members accept as fact this piece of seriously flawed analysis, they should read NAMA’s rebuttal in full, which is available on its website.
Commission of Investigation
I want to briefly touch on the topic of a Commission of Investigation as it will no doubt form part of later contributions.
Following publication of the C&AG’s Report, the Taoiseach met party leaders in September, and received submissions from party leaders on the issue.
At a subsequent meeting with the party leaders in October, there was agreement in principle to establish a Commission of Investigation.
Since then, the Public Accounts Committee has undertaken extensive hearings and has received extensive verbal and documentary evidence from NAMA, the Department of Finance and many of the companies involved in the Project Eagle bidding process.
The PAC has now published its report which continues to support a Commission of Investigation.
Before the Government makes a decision on how to proceed, it will be important to hear the views of members of the PAC on a number of issues. In light of the extensive evidence collected and work already completed by the C&AG and the PAC and in light of the ongoing investigations in multiple foreign jurisdictions it is important that Members in advising Government are able to answer the following questions:
what would a Commission investigate?
where could a Commission add value beyond the work already completed?
what could a Commission achieve in light of ongoing criminal and other investigations, and the fact that many potential witnesses and evidence are located outside the jurisdiction?
how much might such a Commission cost and would the results of such a Commission justify the use of scarce budgetary resources?
I am sure today’s contribution will be made with these questions in mind.
Before I conclude, I would like to return briefly to findings against NAMA.
There is certainly much to discuss on the various conclusions – Corporate Governance arrangements, record keeping and management of conflicts of interest.
I believe the NAMA Board and executives have provided reasoned and rational disclosures throughout the many PAC sessions they have attended on these matters. Members of the House can assess that evidence themselves.
However, let us remember that the PAC’s overarching conclusion is that:
“NAMA has been unable to demonstrate that by pursuing such a strategy that it got value for money for the Irish State”.
We should remember however, that it is equally true that:
The PAC has been unable to demonstrate that by pursuing such a strategy NAMA did not get value for money for the Irish State.
NAMA have stated that it was and remains the NAMA Board’s commercial and considered judgement, in full knowledge of the financial implications, that this sale provided a better financial outcome than any alternative monetisation strategy.
With that in mind, I will conclude that we should now allow NAMA to complete its mandate in the manner it has to date – by using its commercial judgement to continue to maximise returns to the State.
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY