Date Uploaded: 10/02/2016
The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has expressed concern over a “culture of inappropriate” expense claims at University of Limerick.
This follows an independent report published on Tuesday which confirmed some staff at UL filed irregular claims including mileage payments for trips between home and the college.
The review found all inappropriate claims were challenged and, ultimately, none of these payments were issued.
The review was prompted by three whistleblowers in the college’s finance department who raised concerns over expenses and the actions of senior managers after they highlighted their concerns.
The 43-page report by consultants Mazars concluded that irregular claims were ultimately appropriately identified and challenged.
Leona O’Callaghan, one of the whistleblowers, told The Irish Times she felt vindicated by the report’s findings.
“My initial reaction is relief,” she said. “The review was thorough and fair. I felt I did the right and moral thing in refusing to put through preferential expenses.
“I was under pressure to put them through . . . But my morals are intact and I’m glad I am who I am.”
Ms O’Callaghan left the university in 2012 with a financial package after a period out on sick leave.
The Higher Education Authority – which commissioned the report – welcomed the findings and acknowledged the complainants’ public service in highlighting the matters.
However, it expressed concern that “there may have been, or may still be, a culture in the university of inappropriate claims being made, until challenged”.
It also said it was not satisfied the issue of the alleged failure of more senior staff to give direction and support to their colleagues – where authorisation of expense payments was sought – had been adequately addressed.
On a more general level, the HEA expressed concern at the weakness of policies in relation to areas such as sabbatical expenses, procurement of equipment, travel and subsistence.
It also flagged concern over failures in the management approach by UL to human resources policies around the absence of the three complainants, and processes relating to the return to work of staff on sick leave.
UL said it welcomed the report’s finding that “no financial mismanagement or financial wrongdoing took place”.
“In its response, the HEA notes that any inappropriate expenses claims were correctly challenged by staff, that in all cases the university addressed the issues raised by our staff, and that no inappropriate payments were made,” according to a UL statement.
It said the HEA’s suggestion that there was, or may still be, a culture of staff making inappropriate expense claims was not justified and not supported by the report.
“[This is] offensive to past and present staff of the university,” it said.
On the issue of more recent financial allegations made by two other complainants, UL said no evidence of financial wrongdoing was found.
These two women are technically still employees of the university, according to UL, but have been suspended on full pay as a result of a “separate but active disciplinary process”, a UL spokesman said.
UL has threatened legal action against the Limerick Leader, which first reported details of allegations of financial wrongdoing at the university last year. It is understood the college plans to continue with this legal action.
Alan English, the newspaper’s editor, said the review’s findings vindicated its decision to publish its story last September.
“We note that senior Limerick politicians Niall Collins and Willie O’Dea have now repeated their call for UL to withdraw the High Court proceedings launched against the paper and me personally,” he said.
Journalist: Carl O'Brien