University of Limerick criticised for 'misleading' PAC over pension top-ups

Prof Des Fitzgerald

The University of Limerick (UL) has been severely criticised by members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for misleading it over pension top-ups to former staff.

The university was the subject of a damning report earlier this week by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) about top-up pension payments totalling €1.2 million to two senior staff, during the tenure of former President Don Barry who left his post in 2017.

He was replaced by Prof Des Fitzgerald who has condemned the payments and has accepted fully the findings of the C&AG.

On Thursday, the PAC in open session heard stinging criticism of the university after it was found to have “mis-led” the committee, and the C&AG as well as the Department of Education.

The report found that UL agreed the bespoke pension deals for the two senior staff based on undocumented promises and no contractual obligation.

The report by the C&AG revealed that in December 2012 two senior executives, who were employed by one of its commercial subsidiary companies, were seconded onto the University's payroll and given the full pension benefits of core staff.

This move resulted in one of the employees getting an additional, State-backed pension benefit of €745,000 and the second, who has yet to retire, is in line for an extra €424,000 in pension benefits.

The C&AG said that in the course of the earlier examination, the University misrepresented the circumstances around the severance deals to his office and, in particular, failed to disclose that consultancy contracts had been put in place by the University with both managers at the same time that the severance deals had been implemented.

Subsequently, certain matters related to the two cases were also misrepresented to the Department of Education and Skills and at a hearing of the Committee of Public Accounts.

At Thursday's meeting, PAC chairman Sean Fleming and member David Cullinane expressed their deep disappointment and anger at the actions.

“That they misled this committee, the C&AG and the department is incredible,” said Mr Cullinane.

In response to the criticisms, UL told the Irish Examiner that these issues were examined in detail by the university in a Deloitte Report commissioned by its Governing Authority in 2017.

The University said it rejects the view put forward by its own ex-President Barry that the severance packages and follow-on consultancy contracts were separate and distinct and absolutely maintains they should be regarded as the one severance arrangement.

“This was repeatedly misrepresented to the relevant State bodies,” the university said.

"This is wholly unacceptable practice for a public university. Such practise cannot happen today at UL due to the controls that have now been put in place at the University and the approach of the new leadership.

"Moreover, new procedures require that the DES now approves any severance arrangements that arise in the sector.”

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