THE President of the University of Limerick says he will deal “sympathetically” with two whistleblowers who have been suspended for more than two years following the conclusion of an independent review into governance, HR and financial practices at the university.
Prof Des Fitzgerald made his comments this Thursday while being questioned by members of the Public Accounts Committee at Leinster House.
During the hearing, he agreed the actions of the whistleblowers were important and that the way they had been treated was "terrible".
“I think that the whistleblowers and the person who is referred to as “A” have done an important service in bringing some of the issues to public attention and to the university,” he said.
Towards the end of the hearing Deputy Catherine Murphy expressed her surprise at the degree to which UL “went to war” with the Limerick Leader and it’s then editor Alan English after it published details of the whistleblowers allegations two years ago.
“I think it was the wrong decision and I wouldn’t have done it,” he said adding the cost to UL associated with the legal action is in the region of €60,000.
“I’m not sure what led to that decision other than the fact that the decision was wrong. I think the institution felt under pressure, it took some time to convince the institution that it should withdraw the (legal) suit and that stage I think they did realise it was a bad decision.”
Referencing a recent Limerick Leader report marking the second anniversary of the whistleblowers’ suspension, Mary Lou McDonald - a graduate of UL - said what happened to the two staff members was not acceptable.
She said UL had not exercised its duty of care towards them and that their lives have been “turned topsy turvy” and their reputations damaged over the last two years.
Dr Fitzgerald told the Sinn Fein TD he does not endorse what happened to them.
“I would certainly not have treated them or any other member of staff in that way,” he said.
Later, replying to Deputy Catherine Connolly, he agreed the way the two whistleblowers were treated was not not acceptable.
“It’s not acceptable the way they have been treated and left on suspension for the past two years”, he said.
Prof Fitzgerald, who took up the role of president at the beginning of this month said he will not engage with the whistleblowers until the independent HEA-sanctioned review is completed by Dr Richard Thorn.
“What I have said is I will engage with them sympathetically (following the review) and see how we will bring them back into the workforce. I will be very sympathetic to them, I want to bring this to a rapid conclusion,” he said.
During a lengthy session, Prof Fitzgerald was also questioned about revelations contained in a Prime Time Investigates programme which was broadcast on RTÉ television last month.
This included allegations of ‘excessive’ severance payments being paid by UL and allegations of conflicts of interest relating to named members of the senior management team and governing authority.
Prof Fitzgerald told members of the PAC that no disciplinary action has been taken to date but that he will have “no hesitation” in taking whatever action is needed once the independent review is completed at the end of September.
“What we are doing at the moment is we are collecting the information through the internal audit and the external review and I can say right now I will have no hesitation in taking action once we've a proper analysis of the information and once I have had a opportunity to make a judgment as to what actually happened,” he said.
Replying to questions from Deputy David Cullinane, Prof Fitzgerald accepted that representatives of UL had given “incomplete information” to the Public Accounts hearing in March.
Tony Gaynor, principal officer at the Department of Education told this Thursday’s meeting that it is also engaging with UL in an effort to clarify certain information which was disclosed to members of the PAC in March as it was different to information previously supplied to the department.
The Comptroller and Auditor General, Seamus McCarthy, attended this Thursday’s hearing of the PAC as did Dr Richard Thorn who is carrying out the independent review into HR and financial practices at UL.
He confirmed that around 25 submissions have been received and that arrangements are being finalised to meet with various people and stakeholders next month as part of the review.
A final report, he said, is due to be submitted to the HEA by September 30.