Date Uploaded: 11/10/2016
Among allegations are that specific staff on mileage cash and delivery of fitted kitchen
Controversy over the University of Limerick’s (UL) handling of misconduct allegations first surfaced when three people who had worked in the college’s finance department raised concerns over irregular expenses claims.
Among the allegations were that certain staff received mileage payments for journeys between their homes and the university. And that expenses claims for irregular items, including the delivery of a fitted kitchen for one relocating staff member, were approved.
“I stopped a muffin for €1.50 on the same day I paid for the fitted kitchen,” Leona O’Callaghan, who formerly worked in the college’s finance department, told The Irish Times last year. “If you were on the VIP list you played by different rules.”
UL, which strongly denied the allegations, agreed to an external investigator, Mazars consultants, being appointed to examine them.
The report, concluded earlier this year, found that some staff at UL had filed irregular claims including mileage payments for trips between home and the college.
However, it also found all inappropriate claims were challenged and, ultimately, none of these payments were issued.
UL welcomed the report as confirmation that “no financial mismanagement or financial wrongdoing took place”.
The Higher Education Authority (HEA), however, said it highlighted a “culture of inappropriate” expense claims at the university. In addition, it 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.
The controversy might have been put to bed there – but campaigning by the three complainants, along with several fresh allegations of misconduct from other individuals, ensured the issue remained in the political and media spotlight.
This prompted the HEA last May to encourage the university to set up a wider ranging inquiry into all the allegations.
Correspondence released to The Irish Times dating back to the summer shows that the university had firmly rebuffed these calls.
UL insisted there was no reasonable basis for concluding that a wider review was warranted.
As university’s chancellor Mr Justice John Murray put it: “No rationale has been advanced other than at almost impenetrable level of generality . . . ”
What is also striking from the correspondence are the limits of the HEA’s power to compel the college to take further steps, given the autonomy of the universities provided for under legislation.
The HEA’s then chief executive Tom Boland acknowledged that it did not have power to conduct an inquiry and that only the Minister for Education could do so under legislation which related to the appointment of a “visitor”. This, however, was not appropriate “at this time” given the high threshold required.
“Nonetheless, a process is required to bring conclusive clarity and closure to the range of issues and do so in a manner that can win the confidence of all reasonable observers,” he wrote.
UL, clearly, disagrees and insists that its own processes for handling complaints are fair and robust.
Where to now? A mediation process between the university and the complainants appears to have ended.
Two of the complainants are technically still employees of the university but have been suspended on full pay as a result of a “separate but active disciplinary process”.
Given the fact that public funds are involved and politicians are taking an interest , it seems likely the next step in this ongoing controversy may yet play out before an Oireachtas committee.
Journalist: Carl O'Brien