University of Limerick may have to repay €450k deal

The University of Limerick (UL) could be forced to repay part of the €450,000 paid in severance to two former managers who were rehired as consultants, TDs have been told.

The University of Limerick (UL) could be forced to repay part of the €450,000 paid in severance to two former managers who were rehired as consultants, TDs have been told.

The Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) also heard about the concerns of the Department of Education and Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) Seamus McCarthy that UL may not have given them full details of the 2012 deals.

The severance payments of €220,000 to €230,000 each to former UL financial controller John Fox and ex-director of lifelong learning Dermot Coughlan form part of an external review in relation to governance, HR and other matters at the university.

It is being carried out by former Institute of Technology Sligo director Richard Thorn for the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

At a hearing on March 30, UL finance director John Field told the PAC that the packages complied with rules governing severances in every aspect, apart from having prior Department of Education approval.

An RTÉ Investigates programme on the third-level sector a month ago showed the amounts were significantly higher than rules allow. The two men were rehired and paid almost similar amounts again for consultancy work.

UL’s new president, Des Fitzgerald, told the PAC the severance amounts were unacceptably high. He is also unhappy that it was now apparent that the consultancy arrangements were part of the severance agreements.

Tony Gaynor, principal officer at the department’s higher education unit, agreed with Independent PAC member Catherine Connolly that UL had told the department the deal was very beneficial.

He said it has written to UL three times on the basis that information it gave the PAC in March conflicted with what the department was previously told about the packages.

“We had concerns on the validity on which the settlements were calculated, and also then in relation to the re-engagement of certain individuals,” Mr Gaynor said.

Because the department was not satisfied with some of the information it was getting in response to its queries, it was decided to have the severance payments considered as part of Dr Thorn’s review.

He told Catherine Murphy, also an Independent TD, that legal sanctions available to recoup unauthorised payments made by colleges have not been used yet as the outcome of the review is awaited first.

HEA head of system funding Andrew Brownlee said that such arrangements have been used before, where the amount of unauthorised payments were deducted from universities’ subsequent budgets.

Mr McCarthy was asked by Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane if he was concerned that people given severance payments were returning to do consultancy work.

The C&AG said he had understood his office was given complete information by UL on the matter when it was compiling a 2015 report on severance payments in public bodies.

“I’m pursuing further queries with UL in relation to that,” said Mr McCarthy. “But I certainly have concerns that it may not have been complete.”

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