Concerns raised 10 years before college chief lost his job

Waterford Institute of Technology’s financial officer raised concerns with the college’s former president Kieran Byrne about his travel expenses a decade before lavish spending cost him his job, TDs have been told.

The Dáil Public Accounts Committee also heard Tony McFeely told board members about his concerns but they did not raise the issue at the governing body.

Prof Byrne was not re-appointed to the job last year after revelations about the €3.7 million spent by his office since 2004, including almost €300,000 on hospitality and nearly €140,000 on taxis and couriers.

Mr McFeely, who is still chief financial officer, said he stopped signing Prof Byrne’s travel expenses soon after he became president in May 2001. He said the claims did not comply with college policies, particularly his travel to Dublin and associated hotel stays and taxis.

The PAC heard Prof Byrne instead had his travel claims cleared by another member of senior management at WIT until that person retired in 2008. Asked by Fine Gael TD Kieran O’Donnell what he did about it, Mr McFeely said he spoke to a number of board members in confidence but did not bring his concerns to the governing body chairman.

“I suppose I was just apprehensive of bringing this matter to somebody at the time. I had been a candidate for the post [of president] and there’s a view out there it might be perceived as sour grapes,” he said.

It also emerged that:

* Prof Byrne is taking a case against WIT over the selection process for college president, having been recommended to the governing body for re-appointment in May 2011. The governing body decided not to offer him a second term and a new search was undertaken.

* The president’s office arranged the €4,400 charter flight from Waterford to Dublin in 2007 for an overseas expert assessing WIT’s university application for the Department of Education. It was not requested by him or the department and Mr McFeely thought the bill was to be paid by a third party.

* Prof Byrne gave work to PR firms previously used by WIT after another company won a tendering process. The college spent €586,214 on publicity, including payments to two companies, from 2004 to March 2011.

“He had a long-standing relationship with some from a business perspective ... When we appointed somebody else, he wanted to continue to have access to those he was dealing with previously,” Mr McFeely said.

Asked why concerns were not raised by anyone on the board from 2001, Dr Ruaidhrí Neavyn who is WIT president since January, said Mr McFeely spoke to them on a confidential basis.

“What’s a confidential basis? ‘Hush, hush, he’s spending a fortune’?” asked Mr O’Donnell, who described the situation as “Fás and Roddy Molloy, mark 2”.

Dr Neavyn said there was no system for staff to blow the whistle on concerns.

From a peak of €634,000 spent in 2008, Dr Neavyn said his office has spent €180,000 on non-pay items this year. New rules on the president’s expenses include pre-approval for travel and co-authorisation is needed for all spending.

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