Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Desperate attempts to save bankrupt fund

DOUGLAS SHEPHERD reports

Last-ditch efforts seeking to prolong the life of a bankrupt investment fund which had committed multiple contraventions of financial regulations were rejected by an Isle of Man court, according to a newly published judgement which ordered the entity should be wound up and liquidated.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby has been following the (mis)fortunes of the Eco Resources Fund [ERF] and its stablemate New Earth Recycling & Renewables [NERR] since they encountered catastrophic financial difficulties last year. Both funds were run by Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd. (also in liquidation),which was a major player in the New Earth Solutions Group (NESG), now in the hands of administrators with debts running into tens of millions of pounds.

NESG and NERR were handed a £80 million contract by Scottish Borders councillors in 2010/11, including the development and funding of a major waste treatment plant and energy recovery facility at the site of the region's landfill tip on the outskirts of Galashiels. The venture was a complete failure and resulted in a £2.4 million loss for Borders council taxpayers.

Insolvency experts Deloitte's are currently investigating the collapse of the NERR fund; administrators are carrying out a similar exercise at NESG, a liquidator has been ordered to probe the affairs of ERF and the Premier Group has also ceased trading with a liquidator appointed too. A quadruple whammy representing huge losses for various groups of investors and shareholders.

The petition to wind up the ERF - it concentrated investing in bamboo plantations -  from the Isle of Man Financial Services Authority (IOMFSA) included claims that the Fund had been left with a management vacuum, exacerbated by the withdrawal of its directors, administrator, manager and custodian.

According to IOMFSA: "The defendant [ERF] has very considerable - apparently insurmountable - liquidity problems which has been the position for some time. Decisive action is required so as to protect the interests of third parties, investors and creditors."

The court was told in a report from one financial expert there had been a catastrophic mismatch between liquidity terms offered to investors versus the liquidity associated with the underlying assets class.

IOMFSA also pointed out that the Fund was in breach of the Companies Acts and in multiple breach of the Collective Investment Scheme Regulations, including the lack of audited accounts for the period since the end of 2014.All redemptions from the fund had been suspended since April 2015, added IOMFSA.

"There is confusion as to whether the defendant will be able to recover anything from its investments due to security having been apparently granted to a third party over the underlying bamboo plantation assets.

"It is desirable that insolvent companies be wound up in order that the causes of insolvency are determined. The circumstances which have caused or contributed to the defendant's present situation require investigation."

It has been revealed that the day before the court hearing an application was filed on behalf of Premier Group, a creditor of the ERF asking for the IOMFSA claim form to be adjourned for two months.

Deemster David Doyle, the judge in the case, heard that Premier's liquidator had recently been made aware of efforts dating back to December 2016 by John Bourbon (a Manx businessman whose interests included a directorship of Premier Group) to put together a rescue package for the ERF.

According to Deemster Doyle's written judgement: "There are some generalised references to a meeting in New York between Mr Bourbon and others for some long-term funding. There is also reference to a Mr Mike Richardson (also a Premier Group director) brokering an arrangement which sees a South African family office providing short-term finance of $1.9 million."

But Judge Doyle dismissed the application for an adjournment. He states: "There has been reasonable time for a rescue package to have been finalised. The position was covered in very vague, generalised and somewhat belated terms. There has been sufficient opportunity to put before the court detailed evidence in respect of any rescue package. I cannot allow the extremely unsatisfactory position in relation to this company to drag on any longer.

"The defendant has no officers. It has no directors. It has no secretary. It has no manager. It has no administrator. It has no custodian and it appears that a statutory demand in the region of some £2.4 million has not been paid. There are also serious concerns in respect of arrangements with Sustainable Assets Lending LLC (a US-based company) and how the defendant has arrived at the position it is now in.

"These important issues have been outstanding for some considerable time. The defendant cannot in the circumstances be permitted to continue in existence without the appointment of a liquidator to look after, and to look into, its affairs and to take any necessary action.".





Sunday, 26 March 2017

Another fine Premier mess exposed

by DOUG COLLIE

Correspondence and court papers concerning the financial collapse of the controversial Eco Resources Fund [ERF] have revealed that action could be taken against those involved in the affairs of an entity which will cost investors and shareholders many millions of dollars.

The bankrupt ERF was managed and promoted by the same Isle of Man group which controlled the equally useless fund chosen by councillors in the Scottish Borders to bankroll a £21 million waste treatment plant to handle the region's domestic rubbish.

Liquidators are currently picking their way through the wreckage of the New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] Fund (NERR) following its multi-million pound crash last year.

The failure of NERR to provide the money for the Borders waste treatment project meant the facility was never built and now tens of thousands of tonnes of garbage will have to be taken out of the region in lorries for treatment elsewhere.

NERR like ERF was a lucrative earner for the individuals who ran Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd., the investment business which is also in the hands of liquidators with its subsidiaries in complete disarray. The two funds provided millions of pounds in fees and commissions for Premier's directors.

The ERF fund encouraged investors to sink their cash into bamboo plantations in Nicaragua and South Africa with the promise of returns of between 500% and 850% from the 'green' environmentally friendly project.

But investigative work by Gordon Wilson, receiver and liquidator of ERF since the Isle of Man courts ordered the fund to be wound up, has confirmed the worst fears of the investors.

In a letter to shareholders, Mr Wilson says he recently met Troy Wiseman, the American businessman in charge of Eco Planet Bamboo - the organisation developing the plantations - who confirmed that US-based Sustainable Asset Lending [SAL] had foreclosed on the shares in the bamboo plantation companies which were formerly owned by ERF subsidiary Eco Planet Bamboo (IOM) Ltd. That meant the fund had no remaining interest in the plantations.

Mr Wilson wrote: "Mr Wiseman indicated that the fund might be able to buy the plantations back. However no progress had been made about that and in the event the fund lacks the resources necessary to make any purchase for the indicated amount of $10 million. Accordingly other than the small balance of cash (reported to be £12,000) the fund has no assets of any realisable value."

The letter concludes: "I consider it unlikely that investors will see any return on their investment in the fund and creditors are unlikely to receive any distribution either. In light of the financial difficulties dating back almost two years I don't expect that this news will come as a surprise to you.

"I hope that through liquidation a fuller explanation of what has happened here might be forthcoming and that any necessary action against those involved n the affairs of the fund might be taken".

A great detail of background of ERF's collapse is included in the Isle of Man Financial Services Authority (IOMFSA) petition to the Manx court seeking a winding up order.

The court papers reveal that 99 of 100 management shares in ERF are held by Premier Group Distribution Inc. [PGDI], an off-shore entity based in the tax haven of British Virgin Islands.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby discovered last year that the NERR fund was controlled from the same BVI address which just happens to be the offices of law firm Mossack Fonseca who featured in the so-called Panama Papers. PGDI shareholders and beneficiaries include former directors of Premier Group and its businesses.

IOMFSA's petition gives a complete timeline of events leading up to ERF's demise. The document claimed a winding up order - it was granted by the court - was desirable to address the concerns surrounding the operation of the fund.

It states: "It is a matter of public interest and concern that Isle of Man financial institutions accepting investments should adhere to recognised standards and investors should have an appropriate degree of assurance in relation to their investments".

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Fund promising 895% return for investors is wound up

by DOUGLAS SHEPHERD

The spectacular failure of the bamboo-based Eco-Resources Fund [ERF] is to be investigated by a liquidator following confirmation that lenders have foreclosed on plantation assets in Nicaragua and South Africa.

An Order to wind up the ERF - closely allied to another bankrupt outfit chosen by Scottish Borders councillors to fund a £21 million waste management project - was issued by an Isle of Man judge last week on receipt of an application from financial services regulators.

The various 'investment' entities which seem likely to deprive thousands of investors of many millions of pounds were all under the control and direction of Premier Group (Isle of Man), itself penniless and in the process of being dissolved by insolvency experts. It is unclear whether Premier's links to at least three intermediary companies based in the tax haven of British Virgin Islands will feature in any of the ongoing enquiries.

Court papers from the Manx authorities show that two individuals appeared at Thursday's hearing to oppose an application to wind up the ERF which had been tabled by the Isle of Man Financial Services Authority (IOMFSA). They are named as Ray Withers and Patrick Barker. But the Order was granted with Gordon Wilson named as official receiver.

Mr Withers is the Chief Executive and co-founder of a property investment company called Property Frontiers.

According to the excellent Redd-Monitor website, which has investigated and exposed a clutch of global environmental investment scandals, Property Frontiers organised an investment seminar in London in 2011. Flyers prepared for the event held out the prospect of 895% returns for investors in the bamboo plantations.

A year later Troy Wiseman, the man in charge of Eco-Planet Bamboo - ERF was part of the set-up - quoted potential 500% returns over a 15-year period on an investment of $50,000.

Now, Mr Wiseman has advised that US-based Sustainable Asset Lending has foreclosed on the plantation assets, "therefore any recovery appears unlikely".

IOMFSA warns: "At this stage it is not possible to estimate the amount of any recovery on the investments made by Eco. The financial distress of the underlying companies and the apparent foreclosure does however mean that substantial recovery of value from the plantations may be unlikely".It seems 190 investors stand to lose up to $61 million.

Meanwhile, over at the insolvent New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] PLC fund (NERR) thousands of stakeholders are anxiously awaiting an update from liquidators Deloitte. In a virtually identical financial disaster to that of ERF, those who invested money in NERR have been told they are unlikely to get their cash back.

NERR's inability to provide the resources for the Borders waste treatment incinerator at Galashiels left Scottish Borders Council years behind in the race to eliminate landfill and boost recycling levels. The council's decision to place their trust in NERR cost taxpayers at least £2.4 million, and on top of that the local authority is having to develop a £6 million waste transfer station on the site of the proposed treatment plant as it ponders an alternative waste strategy.

The nature of ERF's collapse is almost as complicated as the network of organisations which made up its structure. Premier Group resigned as the fund's manager in December 2016, the administrator's tenure was terminated and fund custodian (Kleinwort Benson Channel Islands) has given notice that it is withdrawing its services.

A detailed news release from IOMFSA explains: "The Company Secretary resigned with effect from March 9 2017, leaving the fund with no functionaries. The fund is unable to pay its debts as they fall due."

The Official Receiver will now hold separate meetings of the creditors and sharefolders of ERF. After those meetings, Eco will then be under the control of a liquidator.

"As part of the assessment the liquidator will need to investigate the circumstances which led to the failure of Eco", adds the press statement.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Death throes of council's invisible funders

by DOUG COLLIE

The "last knockings" of yet another failed investment fund in the Premier Group stable will be played out in an Isle of Man court this week when finance regulators move to have the fund wound up.

It seems $61 million which had been placed in the trust of the Eco Resources Fund by 189 unsuspecting investors has all but disappeared with a paltry £12,500 left in the coffers.

Our readers will be aware that Premier Group (Isle of Man) which is in the process of being liquidated, was also responsible for another worthless fund which was supposed to pay for a £21 million waste management facility for the Scottish Borders at Easter Langlee, Galashiels.

Critics argue that inadequate scrutiny by Borders councillors who sanctioned a £80 million contract with (now bankrupt) New Earth Solutions Group resulted in the loss of £2.4 million of council taxpayers' cash when the deal had to be cancelled in 2015.

 New Earth Recycling and Renewables [Infrastructure] Fund was the approved 'funder' for the Borders project, but could not come up with the money. The untried and unproven form of technology chosen by Scottish Borders Council's senior officers and elected members for the Galashiels facility also turned out to be a complete dud.

It is to be hoped that the various investigations by financial experts into the activities of Premier Group and its subsidiaries will get to the bottom of the catastrophes which have left thousands of investors and shareholders in dozens of countries out of pocket.

While the range of Premier funds were functioning the Group's directors trousered millions of pounds in management and promotional fees.

And as Not Just Sheep & Rugby revealed last year, the company had business links to the offshore tax haven of British Virgin Islands. A number of individuals involved in Premier Group had stakes in BVI based entities.

The Isle of Man Financial Services Authority's [IOMFSA] claim to have the Eco Resources Fund consigned to the dustbin will be heard in the island's High Court of Justice on March 16.

This particular Premier failure was founded as a joint venture with EcoPlanet Bamboo Group to invest in bamboo plantations in Nicaragua and South Africa. It had been promoted as 'a truly green fund' with the promise of handsome double-figure percentages for investors.

It became clear three months ago that the Fund was in serious difficulties when IOMFSA applied for a court order to appoint an inspector to investigate the fund's activities.

Around the same time Eco-Resources directors decided to place the fund in voluntary liquidation as they were convinced it was insolvent. The "balance sheet" showed assets of £12,545 and debts of £2.7 million.

The position worsened when Premier Group's joint liquidators made a demand for fees totalling £2.3 million which the bamboo fund could not meet. When shareholders voted against dissolving the fund its three directors regarded that as a vote of no confidence and resigned on the spot.

But there was an immediate move to keep the fund going when three individuals put their names forward to become directors of the stricken fund. They included Troy Wiseman, head of EcoPlanet Bamboo and John Bourbon, a Premier Group board member and a former head of supervision of the Isle of Man's Financial Supervision Commission.

However, according to a report published by Isle of Man Today, on the morning of a special meeting called in January "the three proposed new directors gave notice that they were no longer prepared to stand".

As Isle of Man Today explains IOMFSA had sought the liquidation of Premier Group (IOM) to be carried out under the supervision of the court. However, a consent order has been agreed to proceed with a creditors' voluntary liquidation.

Premier Group also managed the New Earth group of funds, which went into liquidation last June, and an official receiver was appointed following an application by the regulator. These funds had a paper valuation of $292 million and a total of 3,249 investors who are unlikely to get their money back.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the New Earth Solutions Group, selected by SBC to build the region's waste treatment facility is being dissolved with dets of more than £50 million. Unsecured creditors may receive between four pence and eight pence in the pound.

Voters in the Borders should remember that a fair number of the councillors who were directly involved with New Earth Solutions and its offshore partners between 2011 and 2015 - at great cost to the council's 'clients' - will be seeking re-election at the local government polls in May.

It might be worth asking them for an explanation as to why they ever became involved with any of the organisations named above. At best they certainly fell well short in the due diligence stakes!


Sunday, 5 March 2017

£6 million waste station encounters objections

by EWAN LAMB

A replacement strategy for dealing with tens of thousands of tonnes of domestic rubbish generated by households in the Scottish Borders is encountering resistance at the planning stage with objectors claiming statistics have been changed to ensure approval for the project.

Local residents living close to the site of the proposed £6 million waste transfer station at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels say they were told at a public meeting last autumn the number of trips to and from the station by articulated lorries would double or even treble once the facility was up and running.

But now a revised transport report prepared by consultants commissioned by Scottish Borders Council has concluded: "There are no transport related issues preventing the award of planning consent".

The report claims the overall daily increase in traffic will be 'just three vehicles' of which two will be articulated lorries, giving rise to an additional six vehicle trips per day.

Nevertheless it means the C class road leading to and from the tip will have to cope with 27,250 vehicle loads per annum (105 per day) generating 54,500 vehicle movements annually or 210 each day.

According to one objector: "Having read the revised transport statement I could not believe my eyes. This report is very much one-sided to enable planning permission to be granted".

A second objector comments: "In our opinion the revised transport statement is painting a picture of how everything is rosy on the C77 road. We feel this is only in order that the new centre gains planning permission. No consideration has been given as to how a large volume of artics will impact on us as residents."

Scotland's environmental watchdog SEPA has also expressed concerns about several aspects of the planning application for the transfer station which has, of course, been submitted to the council planning authority by one of its own departments.

A previous attempt by Borders councillors to solve the region's waste disposal issues collapsed in disarray two years ago at a cost to local taxpayers of at least £2.4 million. The intention was to construct a £21 million disposal centre at Easter Langlee which is currently used as an environmentally unfriendly landfill site.

But following a disastrous four-year liaison with waste treatment "experts" New Earth Solutions and offshore investment fund New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] PLC the entire venture based on a £80 million contract turned out to be a costly shambles. The facility was never started and the contract was torn up in 2015.

Now all of the Borders' waste will have to be carted out of the area by road to be treated in other local government territories. The landfill site is due to close by 2018 at the latest.

SEPA [Scottish Environment Protection Agency] has lodged a formal objection to the council's application despite several preliminary meetings aimed at resolving planning issues.

The opposition by SEPA to the application as it stands is based on grounds of lack of information. The agency has offered to review its stance if several issues are addressed.

They have advised the applicants to provide additional information to demonstrate that the site is free of flood risk and that developing this site, as proposed, will not lead to increased flood risk elsewhere.

SEPA concedes many of the issues discussed at pre-meetings have been incorporated in the application. However, they add: "The proposed drainage arrangements are not in line either with discussions between the applicants and SEPA or acceptable practice.

"Foul effluent should not be discharged into the SUDs system. Foul effluent should be taken directly to a soakaway system via a solid pipe". SUDs is an abbreviation for Sustainable Drainage System which is designed to reduce the impact of new and existing developments.

SEPA's submission also calls into questions some of the content of the transport report which appears to have miscalculated the distance from the proposed waste station to the nearest residential properties.

"We note in the transport report that the distances from Coopersknowe Crescent and Melrose Gait are given as 500 metres and 800 metres respectively. We believe that this is incorrect and the distances are actually 310 metres and 250 metres respectively". A sizeable disparity, it would seem.

Commenting on other issues, SEPA point out: "The noise assessment does not appear to have taken into account the noise from reversing lorries (i.e. reversing beepers). The noise assessment must be revised to take this into account.

"We consider the odour assessment should focus on the abatement and reduction of odour emissions rather than focus on modelling which is very uncertain due to its subjective nature. We have seen cases where odour modelling has predicted no odour nuisance where, in reality, there has been an odour nuisance".

Monday, 6 February 2017

Only crumbs for struggling Borders towns

DOUGLAS SHEPHERD argues that a 10-year capital investment programme seems to be out of step with a Borders town centre index.

Galashiels and its immediate hinterland is set to receive the lion's share of capital investment by Scottish Borders Council over the next ten years while other towns with serious economic issues and poor retail activity seem unlikely to benefit much from a newly published expenditure programme.

Many of the projects and items included in a £217 million draft capital financial plan covering the period between 2017 and 2027 are not specific to individual population centres. But those schemes which are earmarked for particular towns demonstrate an extremely heavy concentration of resources in and around the railway communities of Galashiels and Tweedbank.

Yet only a week ago councillors were presented with worrying data in the form of a so-called Borders Town Matrix/index which shows how far Jedburgh and Hawick are lagging behind neighbouring settlements when it comes to economic prosperity.

A list of 17 measures including town centre footfall, vacant retail units and various other factors provided scope for a score of up to 170 for each of the region's centres of population. It was Hawick and Jedburgh which shared the lowest mark of 56, classifying the two towns with a rank of 1, indicating the greatest potential need for attention. Prosperous Peebles with a score of 133 stands at the other end of the spectrum, enjoying a ranking of 10.

According to the matrix, Hawick suffered a 42% drop in footfall between 2012 and 2015. This meant the average number of people in the town centre on particular days when counts were made fell from 7,480 to 4,360. In the same time frame Jedburgh's footfall reduced from 2,900 to 2,460 (15%).

Meanwhile Galashiels experienced a modest two per cent reduction from 8,380 to 8,180, a loss which may well have been reversed in 2016 following the return of the Borders railway in September 2015. Kelso clocked up a 27% rise in footfall from 2012 to 2015, up from 4,360 to 5,550.

The data would suggest a sizeable increase in capital investment should be on the cards for Hawick and Jedburgh. But the council's capital plan offers few crumbs of comfort for these two economically beleaguered places.

The only specific mention for Jedburgh is for a proposed synthetic sports pitch costing an estimated £1.28 million. There does not appear to be any significant spend planned for economic expansion or regeneration. And critics of the "less than fit for purpose" Jedburgh secondary school buildings will be disappointed not to see a replacement school included in the 10-year plan.

Perhaps the same could be said for Hawick where the council's £7.73 million flood protection scheme for the town together with a final £101,000 for the redevelopment of Wilton Lodge Park provide the only local entries in the lengthy ledger of expenditure plans.

At the same time it is possible to identify some £29 million of new money for Galashiels and its satellite of Tweedbank. The programme includes £7.95 million for inner relief road phases, £5.7 million for a waste transfer station (which will provide or safeguard jobs) at Easter Langlee, a new Langlee Primary School (£2.93 million), the proposed Great Tapestry of Scotland museum (£6.56 million including the council's contribution of £3.36 million) and a Central Borders Business Park at Tweedbank costing £6 million.

There is a widely held view among Jedburgh and Hawick residents that their respective towns are not receiving a fair share of the local government financial cake. Whether that view is fair or misconceived is a matter for debate; but on all of the available evidence there is certainly a case to answer.




Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Investors call for inquiry into failed offshore funds

EWAN LAMB reports

Investors and shareholders caught up in the multi-million pound collapse of the Manx-based Premier Group and its associated funds are calling on the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to mount a full scale investigation into the activities of the organisation's directors.

A number of inquiries by administrators and liquidators are already underway, including a probe into the affairs of the bankrupt New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] Fund or NERR which was hand picked by Scottish Borders Council to finance a £21 million waste treatment plant at Galashiels.

The NERR fund, managed, controlled and promoted by Premier Group, suffered a spectacular liquidation last year, leaving 3,250 investors in limbo. Insolvency experts have already warned there is unlikely to be any dividend for shareholders as they pick over the mess left by the 'death' of the Premier empire.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby investigations have uncovered several disturbing aspects of the fiasco which resulted in the cancellation of the Borders project and left local taxpayers at least £2.4 million out of pocket. Our efforts to get at the truth continue, but there is still no sign of any kind of official inquiry into the role played by elected councillors and local government officers with the financial losses written off in cavalier fashion.

Now SBC is having to embark on an alternative waste management solution involving the construction of a £6 million waste transfer station on the site of the planned New Earth Solutions (NES) scheme at Easter Langlee. Up to 50,000 tonnes of domestic rubbish will have to be hauled out of the region by road each year to be processed at sites in other parts of Scotland or beyond.

Today, for the first time, the Premier Group's demise and its ramifications have received extensive coverage in the Isle of Man media.

According to Isle of Man Today, a website which carries articles published in the Isle of Man Examiner, the losses sustained by investors in the various funds runs into tens of millions of dollars.

Beneath a headline which reads: SAVERS LOSE MILLIONS AS INVESTMENT FUNDS CRASH IOM Today details the various disasters which have hit Premier Group and its associated entities.

The article states: " Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd, based at Ridgeway Street, Douglas, was established in 2007 and latterly focused on renewable and green investments including recycling plants in the UK.

"But as far back as 2010 investors had been raising concerns about the fund group it succeeded, also named Premier Group IoM, which was launched in 2001 and had seen funds that it promoted grow to £500 m but closed to new investments in 2005.

"The Premier Shareholders Group accused the Manx government of failing to protect investors after a fund marketed as ‘low risk’ was subjected to a market value adjuster. That 2001 company was not regulated by the island’s Financial Services Authority (FSA)."

This early history of the Group is of particular relevance to SBC's involvement with the New Earth regime, a liaison which was not forged until 2011. So were Borders councillors made aware of these concerns before signing the paperwork on a £80 million contract which was subsequently ripped up and binned?

The IOM Today article continues: "NERR and its two feeder funds, had a valuation of $292.22 m and a total of 3,249 investors, the majority of whom are unlikely to get much of their money back.

"The higher risk nature of the funds was explained in the funds’ offering documents. ‘Substantial recovery of value from those investments may be unlikely,’ says the FSA. The FSA filed a claim to wind up the three funds after two other linked companies, New Earth Solutions Group and New Earth Solutions Facilities Management, in which NERR was the majority shareholder, were put into administration in the UK." 

An investor in one of the Premier funds declared: " the proper authorities need to investigate this fiasco both in the UK and the USA. Sadly this mess will be quite difficult to clear up given the overly complex structure of these businesses and funds. People investing in what they thought would be profitable, eco-friendly and socially responsible ventures are being swindled".