'It still feels very unfair': Call for answers at University of Limerick as audit revealed

Jess Casey

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Jess Casey

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jessica.casey@limerickleader.ie

Leona O'Callaghan, one of the whistleblowers who first raised concerns over financial matters at the University of Limerick Picture: Adrian Butler

Leona O'Callaghan, one of the whistleblowers who first raised concerns over financial matters at the University of Limerick Picture: Adrian Butler

THERE have been calls for accountability to be seen at the University of Limerick after the publication of details from an internal audit revealed that a number of senior staff members provided inaccurate or incomplete information to several government bodies.

Leona O’Callaghan, one of the whistleblowers who first raised concerns over financial matters at the university, told the Limerick Leader it has been very difficult to see the level of financial gain achieved by individuals named in the Deloitte report, while she herself has paid a heavy price for acting as the original whistleblower on several of the matters.

Ms O’Callaghan said: “There is a huge contrast between how the people who are linked to these issues - as well the ones who gained financially - were treated compared to the people who said ‘I don’t want a part in that’. For the people who held their integrity, the contrast in how we were treated is so wrong.

“There’s no one who’s been held to account. There are no disciplinary actions that we’ve been made aware of. We’re all left in the very same place we were in before the report.” 

Ms O’Callaghan alleges she was subsequently managed out of her role after she highlighted the improper payment of expenses during her time as an employee in UL’s finance department. 

“It still feels very unfair. Everybody recognises that I told the truth. There’s been investigations, public reports that [found] I told the truth. My job is still gone. Other people are still in their job.”

The internal audit carried out by Deloitte found 42 matters of extreme, serious and moderate priority, in relation to termination payments, further study, procurement and correspondence exchanged between UL and key stakeholders. This included 16 areas of “extreme” priority, all relating to severance packages worth more than €1.2m. 

Details from the confidential audit, carried out over a two-month period in which UL’s correspondence was scrutinised and 20 key staff members were interviewed, were revealed at the weekend in the Irish Mail on Sunday.

Late last year UL declined to release the Deloitte document following a Freedom of Information request made by the Leader’s former editor, Alan English. Writing on December 4 to explain this decision a UL employee said that “premature release of the record would impact negatively on the university’s strategic, financial and competitive positions”.

The Deloitte report, which has now been obtained by the Leader, found that a number of the university’s most senior staff, notably the former president Dr Don Barry and head of human resources Tommy Foy, provided “inaccurate” or “incomplete” information to the Department of Education and Skills, the Dail Public Accounts Committee, the Comptroller and Auditor General, RTE and even UL’s own legal advisors. None of the severance agreements examined as part of this audit had been approved by the Department of Education. One compromise agreement was also backdated “and presented to the C&AG as a factual representation of what occurred.”

The audit also found that UL spent €91,047 on two senior staff members in the HR department – Mr Foy and Patrick Rockett - obtaining three-year online doctorates at Walden University in the United States, an institution ranked academically inferior to UL.

This figure included €12,000 on trips to Paris, Texas and Florida for workshops and a graduation ceremony. The report states that, in both cases, there were multiple instances of the further study not being in compliance with UL’s stated policy. Dr Barry admitted to Deloitte auditors that he was not aware of UL having a policy of further study.

The findings of the Deloitte report are due to be discussed at an upcoming Public Accounts Committee session. UL lifted its suspension of two whistleblowers, who had been suspended with pay for almost two and a half years, in November following the publication of the Thorn report, a wide investigation into the controversies surrounding governance structures and HR at the university. 

Kieran Mulvey, the former head of the Workplace Relations Committee, has been appointed to act as a mediator with the staff affected by specific issues addressed in the Thorn report. While it is understood that he met with both of the previously suspended employees late last year, they have not returned to work and High Court proceedings against UL issued by both remain active.

An offer to return to a role in the university in some capacity has not been extended to Ms O’Callaghan. “I would certainly love their help in returning to the workforce in some sort of a role, whether it be administrative or secretarial or anything like that,” she said.  

Ms O’Callaghan has also met with Mr Mulvey. While it is possible that she may receive a financial settlement — and is grateful for Mr Mulvey’s efforts — she has mixed feelings about accepting any compensation offer.

“I am very good at what I do, and there should an ability there to reach out to other places within the Department of Education to have me reinstated in another position. There’s a lot of hard-working people in the university who have been affected by the bad publicity, which I’ve helped to create, and I think it would be difficult to return to work [in the UL finance department].”

“I lost my job and I was good at it. It's been proven that I shouldn’t have lost my job so I do feel that putting me back working would be, or should be, part of what happens,” she said.

 “I do believe change is happening and I am happy that changes are being made throughout the whole structure of the university so that history doesn’t repeat itself,”Ms O’Callaghan said. 

In reply to questions asked by the Leader this week, UL said it remains committed to implementing each of the recommendations included in the Thorn report.  “Last year the president of UL issued an unreserved apology for the hurt caused to those affected by issues addressed by the Thorn report – the university accepted that it had made serious mistakes and apologised to those individuals who had suffered due to these past failings,” the response stated, adding: “The UL Deloitte report was commissioned by the new management last year as part of a comprehensive audit of governance procedures at the university. Once the report was completed, UL provided it to the PAC, HEA and the Department of Education.

“UL also shared it with Dr Richard Thorn to assist his independent review of governance at the university. The university is now implementing the recommendations of its Deloitte report and is reporting back to both the HEA and PAC on the progress of that implementation. The report recommends a course of action and the university is adhering to that.” 

When asked if the university would be prepared to re-employ Ms O'Callaghan, UL said it does not want to pre-empt the ongoing mediation process:  “The university is eager to work through that process and it does not wish to breach the confidence such mediation relies upon. But we do want to reiterate that UL is very committed to mediation and to bringing a resolution to these issues and will stay with that process for as long as it takes to resolve these matters.” 

‘Incomplete and inaccurate’ information provided

Incomplete information was provided to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Department of Education regarding two severance payments by UL, the Deloitte report states. These were made to Dermot Coughlan, the former director of lifelong learning and outreach, and John Fox, a former financial controller.

The audit also found that the university did not advise its own legal team that - against departmental guidelines - the two employees were retained on contract after receiving excessive termination payments.

The severance payment to Mr Coughlan was €220,032. This figure, the audit report states, was not calculated in line with the appropriate guidelines and this resulted in an overpayment to Mr Coughlan of €55,245. Mr Coughlan then received consultancy fees of €180,000 (excluding VAT) over three years from 2012 to 2015.

The report notes that legal advice on his departure and re-engagement was sought by UL three months after the arrangement had been signed off with Mr Coughlan. It adds that while UL had been in contact with its legal advisors before Mr Coughlan’s stepping-down agreement was signed, the advice received from UL had been on the basis that his performance had been unsatisfactory.

However, there was no performance issue on Mr Coughlan’s file and the report notes that Dr Don Barry has stated that his departure was not in fact linked to unsatisfactory performance.

Mr Coughlan last year launched legal proceedings against UL for defamation, over the contents of e-mails the university provided to the Department of Education and the Comptroller and Auditor General concerning his severance payment. The report also notes that his severance package was signed off by Tommy Foy and that approval was not sought from the university’s finance committee or governing authority, or from the Department of Education and Skills.

Mr Fox received a severance payment of €232,506 after leaving the financial controller role in February 2012. The Deloitte report says that this figure was €110,930 in excess of what Mr Fox should have received, if the correct guidelines had been followed. Mr Fox subsequently received a total of €189,000 (excluding VAT) in consultancy fees in the three subsequent years to 2015.

Apart from two small projects, the internal audit was not able to establish what work was carried out by Mr Fox’s consultancy firm, Cornaroya. Invoices submitted to UL stated that the sums paid were for “working on the delivery of educational projects”. The reported notes: “There was no indication of who the work was being performed for or what the deliverables were ... Invoices were primarily approved by the HR director.”