An auditor general’s annual audit has discovered irregularities with the accounts of former University College of the Cayman Islands President Hassan Syed, testimony in Finance Committee revealed Friday.
While considering an appropriation of $3.92 million for UCCI, Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush asked if there had been any misappropriations of large sums of money at the college.
Minister of Education Alden McLaughlin said the auditor general’s audit was not yet complete, so he could not say too much.
‘The situation is still in the remit of the auditor general,’ he said. ‘No conclusions have been drawn.’
However, he admitted preliminary findings by the auditor general had found ‘anomalies and irregularities with respect to the operations of the president of the college.’
Mr. Bush pressed for more information on the matter, and asked if a corporate credit card issued to Mr. Hassan had been paid up to date. Mr. McLaughlin held firm that it would be unfair to draw any conclusions at this point.
‘There is only so much you can say,’ he said. ‘There’s an active investigation where there appears to be irregularities.’
He said it would be up to the UCCI board of directors to issue a report on the matter at the appropriate time.
Mr. Syed resigned from his post and left the island suddenly last month, citing personal health issues. The exact nature of his medical issues has not been publicly revealed. However, Mr. McLaughlin told the Finance Committee he understood Mr. Syed had undergone surgery.
West Bay MLA Cline Glidden Jr. asked Mr. McLaughlin why the Finance Committee had not been informed of the development prior to the budget item being discussed. He suggested that had the matter not been questioned, Mr. McLaughlin would have allowed the vote on the budget item to occur without telling the committee about a very serious matter.
‘There is no way I would have left this Finance Committee without discussing the situation at UCCI,’ he said, adding that he was not trying to hide anything.
Mr. Glidden inquired into how long Mr. McLaughlin had known about the situation, and why something wasn’t said to the members of the Legislative Assembly much sooner.
‘I have yet to see one piece of paper that suggests anything is not as it should be at the University College,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘The auditor general has been involved for months; the governor has been involved; the board has been aware and in the course of the last few weeks, I have been apprised all is not well.’
Deputy Auditor General Garnet Harrison confirmed Saturday that the UCCI audit had begun well in advance of Mr. Syed’s resignation in May.
Mr. Glidden asked when the board of directors was likely to make a statement about the matter.
Mr. McLaughlin said that was a matter for the board.
‘If it would have been under my responsibility without a board in between, I would have had a press conference a long time ago,’ he said. ‘I have urged the board to hold a press conference.’
Mr. McLaughlin said he was aware the board had drafted a press release, but he did not know if that release was in the public domain yet.
The Caymanian Compass received that release on Saturday morning.
The board confirmed in the release it had been advised by the auditor general that ‘a limited number of unsubstantiated financial transactions for the office of the president’ had been identified.
In advance of the auditor general’s formal report, the board engaged Deloitte ‘to perform a comprehensive review of the University’s financial practices, processes and internal controls,’ the press release stated.
‘In addition, they will be requested to verify the full extent of unsubstantiated financial transactions.’
The release stated the Minister of Education had been fully supportive of the steps taken by the board.
‘The minister has been and will continue to be fully briefed on the matter.’
Minister of Education Permanent Secretary Angela Martins sits on the UCCI board. Mr. Bush wanted her to answer some questions with regard to the matter, but Mr. McLaughlin did not allow her to, saying the chairman of the board should more appropriately answer the questions.
Mr. Bush requested Chairman of the Board Conor O’Dea attend Finance Committee on Monday to answer further questions on the matter.
Syed’s qualifications questioned
Another issue probed by Mr. Bush was whether Mr. Syed’s credentials had been verified prior to his appointment as president of the institution. He asked for as copy of his doctorate to be brought to Finance Committee on Monday.
Danny Scott, who was chairman of the board at the time Mr. Syed was appointed president, said Saturday that as far as he knew, Mr. Syed’s credentials had been verified. He said a copy of the doctorate degree should be on file.
However, Mr. Scott pointed out that Mr. Syed had originally been hired as a teacher and that it would have been former UCCI President Sam Basdeo would have done the initial verification of credentials on Mr. Syed.
Contacted on Saturday, Mr. Basdeo said when he recruited Mr. Syed as a teacher from Toronto, he only held a master’s degree and no teacher’s certification.
Mr. Basdeo said as part of the evolution of the Community College of the Cayman Islands to UCCI, higher qualifications were required and Mr. Syed and other faculty were encouraged to seek advanced qualifications.
Mr. Syed told Mr. Basdeo that he was seeking his doctorate from the University of Victoria in British Columbia in Canada.
‘He asked for time off from time to time to make presentations and such,’ said Mr. Basdeo, adding that Mr. Syed eventually said he had to go away to defend his thesis.
‘When he returned, he told me he was successful,’ Mr. Basdeo said. ‘I had no reason whatsoever to doubt him. But to be honest, I never saw a piece of paper or a diploma.’
Mr. Basdeo said he was not involved in the recruitment or interview process for his replacement and that it would have been up to the board of directors to verify the qualifications of Mr. Syed for the position of president.