The saga of Hassan Syed

One of the biggest stories in education circles in 2008 concerned the once-popular President of the University College of the Cayman Islands, Hassan Syed. Formerly Department chairman of Computer Science and Technology Mr. Syed was named the new President of the University College of the Cayman Islands in August 2006 after having joined UCCI 2003.

After enjoying a popular run underscored by his aggressive strategy to attract students with new academic programmes, the new Civil Service College and a new Brac campus, Mr. Syed resigned from his post and left the island suddenly on 12 May, citing personal health issues.

Then in early June, it was revealed that an Auditor General’s annual audit has discovered irregularities with Mr. Syed’s UCCI account. Mr. Syed is now under investigation for unsubstantiated financial transactions uncovered during a routine audit of UCCI’s accounts.

A story unfolds

The issue first came to the public’s attention when, during Finance Committee in early June, while considering an appropriation of $3.92 million for UCCI, Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush asked if there had been any misappropriations of large sums of money at the college.

Minister of Education Alden McLaughlin admitted preliminary findings by the Auditor General had found ‘anomalies and irregularities with respect to the operations of the president of the college.’

In a press release, the UCCI board confirmed 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 had 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.’

Deputy Auditor General Garnet Harrison also confirmed that the UCCI audit had begun well in advance of Mr. Syed’s resignation in May.

It was then revealed on 6 June that Mr. Duguay’s office had referred a matter involving unsubstantiated financial transactions involving Mr. Syed to the Financial Crimes Unit of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.

Things get complicated

Opposition MLA Rolston Anglin suggested the auditor general might have acted inappropriately by taking the matter to the FCU before taking it to the university.

Mr. Anglin said he intended to take the matter up with the auditor general when he came before Finance Committee to review the audit office’s budget appropriations.

Before Mr. O’Dea testified Minister McLaughlin raised the matter of how Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush came by the information he cited when broaching the issue in Finance Committee last Friday.

The information Mr. Bush used in some of his questions last Friday could only come from within the UCCI Board of Governors, the university’s administration, from the auditor general’s office or from the police, Mr. McLaughlin suggested.

Mr. McLaughlin said he intended to pursue what he deemed the unlawful receipt and disclosure of the information outside of Finance Committee.

Mr. Bush said he was very concerned with the approach Mr. McLaughlin was taking because it was trying to scare off the Finance Committee from asking questions.

Salary advance

The Finance Committee then learned on 13 June Mr. Syed had received a salary advance, apparently without the approval of the Board of Governors.

During earlier proceedings in Finance Committee last week, UCCI Chairman Conor O’Dea was asked by Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush if Mr. Syed had been given any special grants. Mr. O’Dea responded that he had not.

However, during the Finance Committee’s review of appropriations to the auditor general’s office Friday, Financial Secretary Kenneth Jefferson said that a payment had been made to the former president and the audit office was continuing to review the matter.

Mr. Harrison said that to his knowledge the matter of the salary advance was never brought to the Board of Governors.

‘Based on my knowledge, the chairman would have known of a salary advance at some point in time,’ Mr. Harrison said, adding that he wasn’t sure when Mr. O’Dea obtained that knowledge.

However, it was later revealed in Finance Committee that a 17 April report by Mr. Duguay to the UCCI board showed Mr. Syed was given a salary advance of $71,472 on 17 January 2008. The advance was to be repaid by deducting $3,000 per month from his salary and that deduction commenced the following month.

Plot thickens

Mr. Duguay’s 17 April report also revealed Mr. Syed charged more than US$50,000 of jewellery on the credit cards he was issued by the university. In addition to jewellery, Mr. Syed used his UCCI credit cards to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of goods at department stores in Toronto and London, for furniture, spa treatments and even for a week-long stay at a villa in France that he purchased at a Rotary Club auction in May 2007.

Mr. Duguay’s report stated an estimated US$294,000 of credit card transactions could not be adequately substantiated as UCCI’s expenditure.

However, some of the unsubstantiated credit card charges were subsequently identified as personal expenses to Syed and deducted from his salary.

During the 16-month period between December 2006 and March 2008, the UCCI accounts department deducted US$119,390.18 from Syed’s salary due. During the time, Syed’s salary was US$13,412 per month – US$160,944 per year – although is appears he received a $3,466 bonus in December 2006.

When the Auditor General’s office reviewed the expenditure of UCCI for the financial statements concerning the year ended 30 June 2007, it discovered the unsubstantiated transactions and requested UCCI supply the necessary support records.

Initial statements supplied by UCCI were missing the words ‘more’ and ‘bottom’ to indicate their completeness. The Audit Office subsequently requested certified copies of the credit card statements directly from the bank.

‘Upon receipt of these certified copies from the bank, our concerns regarding the missing pages were confirmed,’ the auditor general’s report stated. ‘The words ‘more’ and ‘bottom’ were now seen on the certified copies.’

The Audit Office’s analysis indicated that the pages missing from the credit card statements originally submitted to them by UCCI had in excess of US$119,000 worth of transactions, including many charges relating to jewellery stores, restaurants, airlines, hotels, furniture stores, liquor stores and spas.

Consultancy fees

The auditor general’s report also details CI$51,750 in consultancy fees Mr. Syed charged for services rendered to the Civil Service Collage.

In the end, Mr. Syed did not receive the full amount of his fees in cash for consultancy services because UCCI deducted from his invoice the amount of $42,914, which it had identified as personal expenses incurred in September and October 2007. Those personal expenses included CI$22,870 in bank drafts Syed ordered, CI$5,479 in credit card expenses, plus CI$14,564 in rent.

In addition to charging the Civil Service College a CI$7,500 consultancy fee to set up the ANGEL on-line learning system, Syed submitted invoices for reimbursement of US$288,484 he purportedly paid for the computer hardware to support the system.

In reconciling the invoices and reimbursements, the auditor general’s report stated it appeared the supplying company was overpaid for the system and that it was awaiting an explanation about the overpayment.

Inflated student numbers

It then later emerged that Mr. Syed had misled the Board of Governors and the Ministry of Education into thinking more students were attending the university than actually were, numbers that were reported in the press.

In Legislative Assembly November 2007, in a statement to the House Mr. McLaughlin had said enrolment figures at UCCI had surpassed 3,600 students at the beginning of the 2007/08 school year.

However, during Finance Committee, acting UCCI President Brian Chapell said 1,377 unique students registered at the university for the fall 2007 semester and 1,331 unique students registered for the spring 2008 semester.

‘What Hassan was doing was reporting registrations as students,’ Mr. McLaughlin told the Caymanian Compass.

Registrations are the number of classes for which students register. Mr. Chapell said that if a student registers for four classes, that would count as four registrations.

‘I am absolutely satisfied we were deliberately misled, especially considering what else has come to light,’ Mr. McLaughlin said.

Icing on the cake

During Finance Committee Mr. Chapell also reported there was nothing in the Mr. Syed’s file that demonstrated he had a PhD, although he had been passing himself off as so qualified.

Former UCCI President Sam Basdeo said when he recruited Mr. Syed as a teacher from Toronto, he only held a master’s degree and no teacher’s certification, but he told Mr. Basdeo that he was seeking his doctorate from the University of Victoria in British Columbia in Canada.

Mr. Basdeo told the Caymanian Compass Mr. Syed had informed him he had successfully obtained his doctorate but Mr. Basdeo never saw a diploma or certificate to substantiate the claim. The University of Victoria told the Caymanian Compass it had not awarded anyone with the exact name Hassan Syed with a doctorate degree.

Postscript

Hassan Syed later turned up working as a department head at Centennial College in Toronto, a position he took up in early June. However, he resigned that post when news of what had occurred at UCCI reached Centennial’s administration.

The police have not yet charged Mr. Syed with anything, and Mr. Syed’s whereabouts today are unknown.

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