Preparations for an “almost unprecedented” court case involving fraud charges linked to Northern Ireland’s biggest-ever property deal have been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, a court has heard.
Two men are facing charges following a long investigation by the National Crime Agency into the £1.2 billion sale of the NI property loanbook held by the Irish Republic’s National Assets Management Agency (Nama).
Prominent Belfast businessman and ex-Nama adviser Frank Cushnahan and solicitor Ian Coulter, a former managing partner in the law firm that worked on the deal, Tughans, are jointly charged with one count of fraud involving a false representation made on or around April 3 2014.
Cushnahan, 79, of Alexandra Gate in Holywood, Co Down, also faces one charge of fraud by failing to disclose information.
Coulter, 49, of Osborne Park, Belfast, is facing four other charges.
These include one further count of fraud by false representation, making or supplying articles used in fraud, removing criminal property and transfer of criminal property.
The case was first mentioned in court on Tuesday at a sitting of Belfast Magistrates’ Court where the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) faced questions around delays in the matter.
Solicitor Joe Rice, representing Cushnahan, said his client first attended for interview in 2016 and described him as being anxious to clear his name.
Counsel for the PPS said charges were authorised last summer at a time when the coronavirus pandemic “had eased somewhat”, but that the relaxations around restrictions did not last as hoped.
“The volume of material in this case extends to just short of 10,000 pages – there is also a large volume of unused material. All of that needs to be copied multiple times for the defence and for the prosecution team, and that’s a considerable task,” he said.
He said the intention is also to digitalise all of the evidence to progress the matter more effectively.
“All of that has taken a very long time taking into account the constraints on administrative going into the building and being there to carry out the copying so they have been working at weekends to try to catch up,” he added.
“We are almost at the completion of that task and I would hope that an adjournment to April 13 would permit that to happen but not waste any further court time with shorter adjournments.”
He described the case as “almost unprecedented” in its volume of material and the complexity of the issues in it “for this jurisdiction”.
Mr Rice disputed that, describing it as a complex case, but not unprecedented for the region.
“Mr Cushnahan is a man of mature years, impeccable background, a distinguished business character (and) well known corporate financier,” the lawyer said.
“He was going to come down here today but he’s careful of where he goes because of Covid-19.
“He’s grossly disappointed at the delay in this case. He first attended for voluntary interview as far back as 2016, he was arrested at one stage with bail conditions in 2017, and he finds it extremely distressing to be in the position that he’s in.
“He is anxious to face trial and clear his name.”
Mr Rice continued: “The PPS chose their time to announce this on August 6 and here we are, into the season of spring and the PPS are saying really, they don’t have enough clerking resources to carry out pagination.
“I would be amazed if this case comes before the Crown Court for trial before 2023.”
The matter is to be raised again at Belfast Magistrates’ Court on April 13.