independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

College takes High Court action against former boss over expenses and ‘chick lit’ novels

Professor Kieran Byrne

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 its former president Professor Kieran Byrne for the return of money spent on flights, hospitality costs and taxis.

The new president of the 10,000-student college, Dr Ruaidhri Neavyn, revealed 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’.

“We have sought to see where they are, to get them back, or to get reimbursed,” said Dr Neavyn.

Prof Byrne, who was on a salary of €156,000 a year, was not reinstated to his position of president at the end of his 10 year term 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 spending  at the president’s office, WIT issued High Court proceedings against Prof Byrne for reimbursement of expenditure.

“As this is now a legal case, I have been advised not to provide any further detail except to reassure you that the matter is being pursued,” he said.

Three investigations and reviews – conducted at a combined cost of over €200,000 - into spending at WIT have already been carried out, including one by Deloitte which highlighted spending by the president’s office of €134,000 on fine art and €18,400 on flowers, while taxis were used for round trips between Dublin and Waterford.

Expensive charter flights approved by the former president were also revealed.

“The governing body believes that the level and nature of expenditure incurred by the office of the former president during the period investigated was unreasonable and in many instances did not represent good value for money,” said Dr Neavyn.

“The consistent breaching of procedures and lack of controls was unacceptable. The failure of both internal and external systems to identify and flag this level of and type of expenditure is also of concern to the governing body.”

Dr Neavyn confirmed legal proceedings against the former president had been instituted in he past eight weeks and he hoped the case would be dealt with within a year.

However, he added that WIT was "open to a settlement".

Among spending identified by the investigations were 280 instances of unexplained hospitality expenses.

A business class return flight taken by Prof Byrne to Chicago in April 2011 cost over €3,000. A member of staff who travelled with him flew economy class.

Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, told he committee it was not acceptable to college staff to book first or business class flights.

"It is not common practice and not something we would stand over," said Mr Boland.

Dr Neavyn also clarified issues raised about charter flights at a previous sitting of the committee.

He said two invoices were paid for flights connected to the institute's application for university designation and a review of this application by an outside consultant, Dr Jim Port.

The first invoice was for €769 for a one way flight from Waterford to Dublin for a group of four from WIT meeting members of the Oireachtas and senior government officials.

The invoice came from firm of architects, Fewer Harrington, rather than the charter company, Bell Airways Ltd. Payment of the invoice was approved by Prof Byrne.

Dr Neavyn said one of the partners in the architecture firm was a shareholder in Bell Airways, but he was unable to provide a further explanation as the partner had since passed away.

The payment of a second invoice for a €4,200 return charter flight from Filton in Bristol to Dublin in June 2007 was approved by Prof Byrne and WIT's former chairman Redmond O'Donoghue.

The flights were arranged to transport Dr Port to a meeting with the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin following the completion of Dr Port's report on the institute's application for university designation.

"The current governing body of the institute believes that the specific transactions relating to flights were unnecessary and did it represent good value for money," said Dr Neavyn.

"The procurement and authorisation processes adopted were inappropriate and the information that was available regarding these flights was insufficient and inadequate."

Mr Boland told the committee he had discussed expenses issues with Prof Byrne.

"He was entirely adamant he had no case to answer and the expenditure was appropriate," said Me Boland.

Dr Neavyn said several steps had now been taken to ensure inappropriate spending did not occur again.

The budget of the president's office has been slashed from €630,000 at its peak in 2008 to €140,000 this year.

The budget is now pre-approved by the governing body and revised bi-annually. WIT corporate credit cards have been withdrawn and policies on travel, hospitality, credit card and mobile phone usage have been updated.

Foreign travel by the president now has to be pre-approved by the governing body.

Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald described the spending as "hair raising".

She queried why only €120,000 was being sought from Prof Byrne in the High Court proceedings when the spending involved "appeared to be multiples of that sum".

Dr Neavyn said he High Court claim had been arrived at following "a detailed analysis" of the spending.

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