Academics rack up €108,000 taxpayer bill for private jets
SENIOR staff members at a leading university research institute used more than €108,000 of taxpayers' money to hire private jets, the Irish Independent has learned.
The private flights for academics and researchers from NUI Galway's Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) were part of a litany of wasteful and "inappropriate" spending uncovered at the institute, which pioneers research in internet technology.
The university was forced by the Science Foundation Institute (SFI) to give back €170,000 claimed by DERI for flights and conference trips. The SFI objected to "inappropriately-claimed expenses".
The disclosures will come as a major embarrassment to NUI Galway President Dr Jim Browne and his immediate predecessor Dr Iognaid O Muircheartaigh, who were passengers on one of the private jet trips.
"They would acknowledge that it was wrong and that it probably shouldn't have happened," current DERI chief executive Michael Turley told the Irish Independent.
An Irish Independent investigation reveals how:
- €154,000 in state money was spent sending up to 50 DERI staff to conferences at a luxury resort on the Greek island of Crete.
- €1.3m was spent on foreign travel by the institute in just three years.
- Clashes over some of the spending preceded the departure of two of the institute's directors, Professor Dieter Fensel and Professor Christoph Bussler.
Details of the scandal emerged after the Irish Independent obtained flight invoices and other evidence using Freedom of Information rules.
German-born academics Fensel and Bussler were appointed to lead DERI after it was established in 2003 with a grant of €12m from SFI.
Prof Fensel was recruited as scientific director on a lucrative five-year package, despite the fact he was only on a part-time professorship and spent half his time working at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
Prof Bussler was appointed executive director, reporting to Prof Fensel.
Shortly after his appointment, Prof Fensel complained that travelling between Innsbruck and Galway was cumbersome and sometimes involved four commercial flights.
Records reveal Prof Fensel hired a charter flight to take himself and a group of researchers from Innsbruck to Galway in June 2004 at a cost of €11,200.
The professor signed off on the flight himself and no controls were in place to ensure he sought prior approval from the university's accounts office.
After receiving an invoice for the flight, the NUI Galway accounts office queried the use of chartered flights and whether SFI approval had been sought.
That August, SFI told the university that charters could only be used if the cost was comparable to a commercial carrier.
However, Prof Fensel chartered a further nine flights between Galway and Innsbruck up to November without prior approval from the university's accounts office. He was the lead passenger on eight of them, while Prof Bussler was the lead passenger on the ninth.
Five invoices -- for sums of €11,200, €14,060, €26,521, €23,980 and €21,500 -- were received by the university in connection with those flights.
They included flights to and from Innsbruck that September used by Dr Browne, who was the university registrar at the time, and Dr O Muircheartaigh.
In a lengthy statement, NUI Galway said both men made the journey because a collaborative research partnership agreement was being entered into by the two universities.
After the trip, Dr O Muircheartaigh wrote to SFI querying the flights and an internal audit was initiated by the university.
SFI subsequently sent in accountants to investigate the use of private jets. Following the investigation, SFI found a total of €185,000 had been spent inappropriately and it was agreed that €170,000 would be paid back.
The money was repaid from the university's private earnings and not Exchequer income, the statement said.
Neither Prof Fensel nor Prof Bussler responded to requests for comment from the Irish Independent.