UL whistleblower: ‘I lost my job for doing the right thing’

Investigation vindicates Leona O’Callaghan who discovered UL misuse of public money

Leona O’Callaghan: “My career floored as a result of my efforts to make the right and ethical decisions in my role in UL.” Photograph: Brian Gavin/Press 22

Leona O’Callaghan: “My career floored as a result of my efforts to make the right and ethical decisions in my role in UL.” Photograph: Brian Gavin/Press 22

 

Within weeks of being placed in charge of verifying expense claims at University of Limerick’s finance department, Leona O’Callaghan noticed a troubling trend.

In mileage claims, some senior staff seemed to receive payment for journeys between their home and the university, whereas others did not.

Then there was a claim for the delivery of a fitted kitchen for one relocating staff member, despite concerns being raised internally.

“I stopped a muffin for €1.50 on the same day I paid for the fitted kitchen,” Leona O’Callaghan, who formerly worked in the college’s finance department, told The Irish Times last year. “If you were on the VIP list you played by different rules.”

O’Callaghan, who took up the role in September 2009, eventually left her post a few years later. She says her position became unsustainable when she challenged these expenses and felt “managed out” of her position in the university.

Her allegations sparked a chain of events which led to an independent review into claims of misconduct at the university. The review, published on Wednesday, is sharply critical of human resources and management practices at UL, as well as governance and financial practices.

In particular, it highlights issues over severance payments for up to eight former staff or contractors totalling €1.7 million, or an average of €212,000 per case. In some cases, members of staff who received these payments were subsequently re-employed on lucrative contracts.

The inquiry notes the Department of Education was not informed of the severance agreements, while some “breached pay policy guidelines”. It found the number of severance agreements entered into by UL over the period was “several orders of magnitude greater” than any other third-level institution.

Suspended whistleblowers

The report is critical of the treatment of whistleblowers such as Leona O’Callaghan and other staff members from the finance department, who have been suspended for more than two years. The review noted O’Callaghan’s concerns should have “been dealt with at an earlier stage”.

UL, under its new president, Dr Des Fitzgerald, has pledged to respond swiftly to all the recommendations.

It has already introduced significant reforms of senior management and governance structures. Whether individuals will be held to account for their role which gave rise to these controversies, and whether reforms will rid the colleges of this damaging culture, remains to be seen.

What is striking about the controversy at UL is that, if handled properly, an independent review should never have been necessary.

The Higher Education Authority, which had been dealing with allegations from O’Callaghan and others, had privately sought UL’s co-operation with an independent inquiry. Instead, it was met with resistance and a blanket insistence that the college had “robust processes” in place to deal with all allegations.

The authority, which can only launch an external intervention with the agreement of a university – given the autonomy provided to institutions under law – was powerless to go further.

Governance and malpractice

The only other step available was for the Minister for Education to appoint a “visitor” – in consultation with the High Court – to, in effect, take over the running of the college. It is no coincidence that legislation due to be published shortly will provide new powers for “inspectors” to be assigned to investigate issues over governance and malpractice.

It has also damaged the wider reputation of the third-level sector and done little to make the case for a new funding model to ensure more resources are available for higher education.

For Leona O’Callaghan, there is at least some vindication that she did the right thing in raising concerns – though it has come at a heavy personal cost.

“My family and children have all had to help me pick up the pieces when my career floored as a result of my efforts to make the right and ethical decisions in my role in UL,” she says.

“Although this report helps heal the damage done, it still leaves me in the same financial and career place. I still have no pension, no full-time position and struggle financially to make ends meet when this was not the case before I was managed out by UL,” she says.

“I hope UL can now have a culture where, in any position in UL, the right thing to do is the right thing to do. I feel that was not the case before. The very reason I lost my job was as a result of doing the right thing.”