UL faces sanctions over €1.7m deals for former staff

The University of Limerick faces possible sanctions for misleading the Department of Education and others over severance payments to former staff who were then rehired.

A damning report showed two of the payments totalling around €650,000 were among eight severance or compromise deals totalling €1.7m.

The deals agreed or offered from 2007 to 2015 did not have proper department approval, some breached public pay policy guidelines, and those in which employees were subsequently rehired are to be subject of a further investigation.

Richard Thorn highlighted the payments in a broad review of human resources management and other issues at UL.

His report also found that:

  • The number of severances was several times more than agreed at any other college.
  • A gross misconduct hearing against a lecturer found to have engaged in mild and moderate bullying or harassment was unduly severe, and a letter from UL’s then-president Don Barry to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee gave a misleading impression his contract was terminated for inappropriate touching of students.
  • There was a hostile working environment in UL’s accounts payable office, where two whistleblowers were the subject of prior complaints, as well as making them about their colleagues.
  • UL’s decision to issue legal proceedings against the Limerick Leader newspaper in September 2015 on its coverage of the whistleblowers’ situation, which were only withdrawn last May, was ill-conceived.

The 122-page report shows that UL misled the department on circumstances of severances of at least one of two senior staff in 2012, who were both paid over €320,000 each and then worked on a consultancy basis at UL for another three years.

UL’s communication of the matters to the department, the PAC and the comptroller and auditor general is described by Mr Thorn as a “confusing narrative”.

The university’s president Des Fitzgerald, who replaced Don Barry at the height of controversy over the issues in May, apologised to the PAC in June for sufficient information not previously being provided to it or the Higher Education Authority.

He said yesterday UL would act swiftly in response to the report and highlighted governance and other matters that have already been reviewed and some reforms already under way.

Mr Thorn’s review was requested by Education Minister Richard Bruton in May and commissioned by the HEA, which agreed that the report highlights how UL misled it and the department on severance arrangements.

“The HEA has given the university until Friday, November 24, to respond to the review findings, after which the HEA will consider what further action is required,” a spokesperson said.

As well as a full formal response on the entire report and its findings, and an expectation that UL act on the recommendations without delay, the question of severances is to be further probed.

UL is expected to provide an account that is “comprehensive and accurate” within one month, of the circumstances around all severances agreed.

This will be the subject of a further investigation by Mr Thorn, expected to be completed within weeks of the details being provided by UL.

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