Foster will not give Sentinel Cerberus files

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster

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The Finance Minister Arlene Foster has refused to release details of what its officials said to a special advisor to the New York private investment firm Cerberus Capital Management, L.P. during meetings in December and February.

Officials from her Department, whilst acknowledging the major public interest in the meetings, nonetheless upheld an earlier decision not to release the minutes to the paper.

The Sentinel had asked the Department to review the decision internally.

Cerberus acquired loans attached to a huge swathe of Northern Ireland - including several Londonderry assets - when the Dublin Government’s National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) - sold its Northern Ireland portfolio last year.

Back in May the Sentinel asked DFP for “copies of all correspondence/minutes of meetings involving Ministers/officials/third parties, which are held by DFP relating to Cerberus’ acquisition of/plans for the NI NAMA loans between the acquisition and the present date.”

The Department has upheld the original decision to refuse the information.

It says it was the “reasonable opinion” of the Minister that releasing the information would be likely to inhibit “the free and frank provision of advice” or “the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.”

“On June 16, 2015, a brief was sent to the Minister setting out the case for exemption under Section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii). The crux of the argument was that release the information of would inhibit free and frank discussion and could damage the quality of advice provided about the Department’s dealings with Cerberus.

“It was noted that Cerberus’ work in relation to its Northern Ireland portfolio continued to be a live issue and consequently the ability of officials or others to deliberate and explore options and provide advice should not be compromised.

“This argument was supported by a public interest test and after due consideration the Minister accepted this advice. Section 36 requires the qualified person to provide a ‘reasonable opinion’ before invoking the exemption. Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office characterises a ‘reasonable opinion’ as one which is not absurd or irrational, and in light of the briefing and the public interest test, I conclude that the Minister’s decision was indeed reasonable.

“One shortcoming of the process was that the Public Interest Test itself was not made available to the requester,” the DFP said.

The Sentinel is appealing the decision to the Information Commissioner.