UG Council sacks bursar, senior accountant after special audit

- union to protest move

The University of Guyana (UG) Council has terminated the contracts of Bursar John Seeram and Senior Accountant Hazel Bentick as at the end of last month and the workers’ union says it plans to protest the decision.

Seeram, who has functioned as the Bursar for 15 years, confirmed to Stabroek News that his contract was terminated and added that there was no mention of the reasons in the letter issued to him informing him of the decision. The letter did, however, indicate that he would be paid for three months’ leave in lieu of notice.

Stabroek News was unable to establish contact with Bentick, who was said to have been only appointed to the senior position in March of this year.

This newspaper understands that the special audit into UG’s finances was completed and that a draft report was handed over to the UG Council for consideration. It should be noted, however, that the document presented to the Council did not bear markings indicating that it was a draft report.

A special audit was requested by UG Vice-Chancellor Jacob Opadeyi earlier this year to determine the condition of the university’s finances. The audit, Opadeyi had said, was imperative if UG were to correct its financial deficiencies and move forward. The audit was facilitated by the University of West Indies (UWI).

According to sources, no acts of malfeasance were discovered during the audit, although auditors were said to have discovered that several weaknesses of varying natures were compromising the Bursary’s ability to effectively protect the university’s assets. Further, it was indicated that the auditors found that this reality depreciated the reliability of the financial information produced and disseminated by the Bursary to the relevant senior staff members.

Overall, Stabroek News was told, the auditors concluded that insufficient assurance could be placed on the management and control environment under which UG’s finances were being prepared, and that the checks and balance mechanisms created to regulate the system were inadequate and ineffective. Ultimately, the university’s financial system was deemed by the auditors as inadequate.

University of Guyana Senior Staff Association (UGSSA) President Patsy Francis said the UGSSA’s Vice President Melissa Ifill is its representative on the council, and she was present during the consideration of the report on August 22. It was at this meeting, Francis said, that the council decided to terminate the contracts of the two senior staff members.

Though neither Seeram nor Bentick were given reasons for the termination of their contracts, it is believed that the decisions were made as a result of the weaknesses unearthed in the university’s financial system.

Francis, though, was of the opinion that the weaknesses alluded to were by no means the faults of the staffers; instead, she blamed the precarious financial situation in which UG remains. Additionally, she, as well as Seeram, questioned the appropriateness of taking a decision to dismiss staff based on the findings contained in a draft report. Even more troubling, Francis said, was the fact that responses to the report by Seeram and Bentick, submitted to Opadeyi at his request, were not presented to the council for consideration.

“The union’s position is that they were not given a fair hearing. The union was not informed of their dismissal, and they were not afforded due process,” Francis said, while arguing that since there were no findings of malfeasance, they should have at least been given these graces.

Francis shared that the UGSSA, in collaboration with the University of Guyana Workers Union (UGWU), plans to protest, in writing, to the council over the decision. If this does not yield favourable results, she said, further action will be taken.

Past audits
Nothing contained in the audit report could have been different from what was discovered in previous reports submitted to the council for review, Francis yesterday declared.

Stabroek News understands that the recently-concluded audit covered August 1 2011 to April 30, 2013, and according to Francis, annual audits conducted by external auditors were carried out for both 2011 and 2012. The reports for these audits were submitted to the council, which, after reviewing them, did not take a decision to terminate the contract of Seeram. As a result, Francis said, she is oblivious as to what new information was presented in the special audit.

What is especially curious, she said, is that Bentick was only appointed Chief Accountant in March of this year, before which she functioned as a junior member of staff. Therefore, she had only been functioning as Chief Accountant for approximately two months, when the special audit was requested.  “How can she be held responsible for the financial problems if she had only been functioning for that short period of time?” Francis questioned, while also noting that Bentick, while a junior staff, had voiced her dissatisfaction at the state of the university’s financial situation to former vice-chancellor Professor Lawrence Carrington and former acting vice-chancellor Dr Marlene Cox, both of whom, she said, made failed attempts to have special audits done.

Special audits
Francis said that Carrington, during his tenure in 2011, noting the less than desirable nature of the university’s finances, requested of the council that a special audit be done. This request, however, she said, was turned down.

Further, in 2012, Cox, for unknown reasons, requested that a team led by Professor Clive Thomas construct the Terms of Reference (TOR) for auditors to carry out a special audit into the university’s finances. Francis, who was part of that team, said they completed and sent the TOR to the council on April 14, 2012. Since the special audit was never carried, Francis said, she believes the document was “scrapped” by the council.

Scapegoats
Francis is convinced, in the light of these realities, that Bentick and Seeram are mere scapegoats for the council, which is attempting to pass off blame for its own inefficiencies. She said the council members have sat by and allowed UG to wallow in less than favourable financial conditions. The fact that they had opportunities to conduct a special audit before, and the fact that they have not made significant attempt to elevate UG from financial disrepair, she argued, is a testament to their negligence. The only thing Bentick and Seeram did wrong, Francis told Stabroek News, was make efforts to keep UG above water.

“If it was me, I would have let the thing fall on their heads,” Francis declared. She said she had urged Seeram, who “did his best considering the terrible financial condition of the university,” to do the same. “But I suppose he felt he had a moral obligation to keep UG going. We cannot leave this alone; we will fight it. First Freddy, now this. So, who is next? That is the question.”

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