Crown: Syed created UCCI credit card policy

Former University College of the Cayman Islands president Hassan Syed created a credit card policy in a “desperate attempt” to justify more than $200,000 in dishonest spending to auditors, a court heard Monday.

Prosecutor Patrick Moran said a lack of checks and balances at UCCI and the trust placed in Syed personally meant he was able to obscure his spending from the college’s accountant and board of governors for months.

But when staff at the Office of the Auditor General obtained accurate copies of his credit card statements in March 2008, Syed was finally asked to explain the expenses, which included thousands of dollars on jewelry and overseas trips.

It was at this time, according to Mr. Moran, that Syed produced a document purporting to be a policy for the use of the UCCI-funded cards.

It indicated that the cards could be used for entertaining “high-end clients” and “visiting dignitaries” and that the purchase of gifts for such visitors, as well as for students, was officially sanctioned.

Mr. Moran, concluding his opening statement in the Grand Court trial Monday, read excerpts from the policy, which suggested such spending on entertainment was necessary to generate valuable revenue for the college.

The prosecutor said the document had not been seen before by the college’s accountant or the board and suggested it had been created on Syed’s computer to show to the auditors. He said the electronic history of the document, found in a folder entitled “Office of President folder” indicated it was last modified by Syed on March 4 – the same day Syed became aware the auditors had his full credit card statements.

“This was a desperate attempt by Mr. Syed to explain the expenditure on the UCCI credit cards for which he was responsible, and to pull the wool over the eyes of the auditors,” he said.

He said the statements initially provided to the auditor general’s office by Syed had been altered to cover up the fact that they were incomplete.

It was only when the auditors obtained the statements directly from the bank that the full extent of Syed’s spending became clear, the prosecutor claimed.

The credit card spending is one of 12 charges against Syed. He is accused of stealing more than US$500,000 in college funds through various methods, to fund a lavish lifestyle and buy gifts for a series of close female friends.

Syed is alleged to have falsely claimed thousands of dollars in consultancy fees and through fabricated invoices in connection with his involvement in setting up the Civil Service College of the Cayman Islands.

The project, which began in late 2007, was a collaboration between UCCI and government to create opportunities for civil servants to get additional training and advance their careers.

Syed is alleged to have dishonestly claimed he was personally entitled to nearly CI$100,000 in consultancy fees in relation to work done on the project.

While UCCI was entitled to be paid for its role in setting up the college, Mr. Moran said there was no specific contract for Syed to receive any additional funds on top of his “already healthy” salary.

Despite this, he said, Syed submitted a time sheet claiming to have completed 345 hours of consultancy work at a rate of $150 an hour and billing UCCI CI$51,750, which the college paid, for the work.

He later submitted a second time sheet, doubling the number of hours he had worked on the project, and was again paid by UCCI for the work.

On this occasion, the prosecutor said, Syed persuaded Mary Rodrigues, a staff member in the Portfolio of the Civil Service, to co-sign the document, telling her it was for “accounting purposes” only.

Syed is also alleged to have falsified invoices from a company called Lominger Services, which provided “products” worth around CI$50,000 as part of the Civil Service College project. These legitimate expenses were rightly paid off on the UCCI card, according to Mr. Moran.

However, Syed is alleged to have falsified Lominger documents to suggest he had personally paid them for further products and services.

The college reimbursed him just over CI$70,000 on the basis of these invoices, Mr. Moran said.

Mr. Moran outlined a series of other offenses, including the purchase of a Mitsubishi motor vehicle with college funds, the use of a college check to draw cash from a UCCI account and obtaining a salary advance of CI$70,000 by doctoring emails to convince the college accountant it was authorized by the board.

Some of his crimes, including the claims for consultancy fees, were linked, said Mr. Moran, to the scrutiny Syed’s credit card bills were coming under in early 2008.

It was around this time that the auditor general’s office began voicing its concerns and seeking documentation to support some of the spending.

The auditors, said Mr. Moran, had begun to suspect that “several hundred thousands of dollars may have been misappropriated through the misuse of the credit cards issued to Mr. Syed.”

As the scrutiny intensified, he said, Syed began formulating an exit strategy.

A draft report dated April 17, 2008, raising concerns including about Syed’s spending, the consultancy fees on the Civil Service College project and the Lominger invoices, was brought to the attention of the board and Syed.

Less than a week later, the prosecutor said, Syed left the Cayman Islands on a flight to Canada via Kingston, Jamaica. He booked a return ticket but never came back, submitting his letter of resignation to the UCCI board and citing health reasons for his abrupt departure.

Following his departure, a police investigation was launched resulting in the charges Syed now faces, Mr. Moran said.

The prosecutor completed his opening statement around 1 p.m. Monday and the first witness was scheduled to be called later on Monday. Syed denies the offenses and the trial is expected to last around six weeks.

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