Tuesday 20 February 2018

Calls for probe into third-level spending after new revelation

Katherine Donnelly and Ralph Riegel

PRESSURE is growing for a nationwide probe into third-level spending after fresh revelations of overspending at a leading institute of technology.



The Irish Independent has learned the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) was about to re-appoint its controversial president, Prof Kieran Byrne, despite being told of his lavish entertainment and taxi bill by the state public spending watchdog nearly six months ago.

The revelation has highlighted a lack of checks and balances in place to monitor spending in our colleges and universities.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is now under pressure to order an independent audit of all expenses spending by third-level colleges.

However, the minister last night declined to say if he would order a nationwide audit.

A spokesperson said he was awaiting a report from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which in turn is awaiting a report from WIT on a review carried out by accountants Deloitte.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) said it raised the issue of Prof Byrne's expenses with the college as far back as December.

"Arising from work on the audit of the 2009/2010 financial statements of the Waterford Institute of Technology, issues about a number of areas, including some relating to the expenses of the president, were raised in a meeting with management of the institute on December 8, 2010," a spokesperson told the Irish Independent.

Despite the concerns expressed to WIT management, the college was on the verge of reappointing Prof Byrne to the €156,000-a-year post he held for the past 10 years.

The affair raises serious new questions about the level of accountability over the use of state funds by public bodies.

On Thursday, the WIT governing body decided against reappointing Prof Byrne following widespread publicity about the level of his spending between 2004 and 2011.

This included the regular use of taxis for the 200-mile round trip between Waterford and Dublin, hospitality expenses of €290,000 and €130,000 on fine art signed off by Prof Byrne's office.

Staggering

Car hire charges over seven years amounted to a staggering €139,000, including €129,000 to a local taxi company run by Martin and Eleanor Power.

Those figures came to light in response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Teachers Union of Ireland.

The minister, the HEA and the Department of Education were all understood to be deeply unhappy at expenses spending at WIT.

As a result, WIT's board refused to extend Prof Byrne's term on Thursday night.

Chairman of the WIT board Dr Donie Ormonde confirmed that the institute was now searching for a new president, both in Ireland and overseas.

The post will be advertised within the next fortnight.

In the interim, WIT secretary Tony McFeely will be acting president.

The C&AG is charged with auditing the accounts of public bodies.

The watchdog is the sole external auditor for the country's institutes of technology.

Increasingly, the C&AG is looking at matters such as pay, allowances, expenses and use of credit cards by senior executives.

The sheer scale of expenses applied for -- and sanctioned -- at WIT over the past four years prompted angry demands for an independent probe of the entire third level sector.

Local senator David Cullinane (SF) said he was "very angry" over the revelations.

He queried how such lavish spending could take place at a time of national financial crisis.

"I have to say when I saw the headline figures I was shocked, appalled and angry.

"I think what needs to happen very quickly is that an independent and thorough invest- igation is established," he said.

Local Independent TD John Halligan said the level of spending involved had "appalled" ordinary people.

"People have a right to know how he incurred so much expenses.

"This is at a time when students are paying higher grants, there are 14,000 people unemployed in Waterford and teachers have had their salaries cut back.

"How can you blame people for asking questions," Mr Halligan said.

"People are only looking for accountability -- but it appears to me that spending (so much) money on art pieces is questionable," he added.

Irish Independent

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