A THIRD-LEVEL college is taking a High Court action against its former president, seeking the repayment of up to €120,000 in expenses allegedly used for his personal benefit.
The case is being taken by Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) against Professor Kieran Byrne for the return of money spent on flights, hospitality costs and taxis.
The current president of the 10,000-student college, Dr Ruaidhri Neavyn, revealed that Prof Byrne was also being pursued for an explanation as to why so-called 'chick lit' novels, with no academic value, were purchased through his office.
The books include Claudia Carroll's 'I Never Fancied Him Anyway' and Jill Mansell's romantic romp 'Mixed Doubles'.
Prof Byrne (63), who was on a salary of €156,000 a year, did not have his contract as president renewed after his 10-year term ended in 2011. He retired on a full pension.
Dr Neavyn told the Dail's spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, that following a detailed internal review of over €1m in spending by the president's office, WIT issued High Court proceedings against Prof Byrne for reimbursement of expenditure.
He said that between €110,000 and €120,000 "could be seen as personal spending" by Prof Byrne and this, as well as legal costs already standing at €22,400, would be pursued in the court action.
The committee heard that three investigations and reviews into spending and organisational structures at WIT had already been conducted at a cost of over €200,000.
One of the reports detailed €290,000 in hospitality expenses, €263,000 in travel expenses, €134,000 spent on fine art and €18,400 on flowers by the president's office.
Travel expenses included expensive charter flights and taxis from Waterford to Dublin.
Committee member Mary Lou McDonald (SF) described the spending as "hair-raising".
Dr Neavyn said the spending was "unreasonable" and in many instances "did not represent good value for money".
There had been consistent breaches of procedures and lack of controls, which was unacceptable, he said.
Spending highlighted included a business-class return flight taken by Prof Byrne to Chicago in April 2011, which cost over €3,000.
Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), told the committee it was not acceptable or common practice for college staff to take first-class or business-class flights.
Another committee member, Labour TD Gerard Nash, raised questions over the purchase of a rotogate – a revolving security door similar to turnstiles found at sports grounds – which was installed in Prof Byrne's office at a cost of almost €4,000.
Mr Nash asked if it was "designed to keep people out or to keep the president in".
Dr Neavyn told the committee Prof Byrne signed off on questionable expenses himself. This included two invoices for charter flights, connected to the institute's application for university designation.
The first invoice was for €769 for a one-way flight from Waterford to Dublin for a group of four from WIT who were meeting TDs and senior government officials.
Mr Boland told the committee that at a later stage he discussed the expenses issues with Prof Byrne. "He was entirely adamant he had no case to answer and the expenditure was appropriate," he said.
The HEA boss said there was no evidence of any similar scandal taking places in any other third-level institution.