Syed trial: UCCI board chair denies sanctioning $70K advance

The former chairman of the University College of the Cayman Islands board of governors testified that he never authorized a $70,000 salary advance to the college’s former president Hassan Syed.

Conor O’Dea, giving evidence in Syed’s ongoing Grand Court trial, said he had been unaware the cash had been paid to the president in January 2008 until several months later.

Shown an email exchange between himself and Syed, which suggested he had agreed to the payment, he said he had not authored those messages.

The prosecution has suggested that Syed doctored a genuine email exchange between himself and Mr. O’Dea to fool the college’s accountant into handing over the money.

Mr. O’Dea said he did not know of the salary advance until April 2008, when Syed came to him seeking retrospective approval for the payment, which he said was for medical treatment.

He said he was sympathetic to Syed’s medical condition but had refused to approve the salary advance at that late stage. He said he had instead consented to formally record the debt and agree a schedule of repayment.

This did not amount to authorization of the original payment, he said.

Mr. O’Dea, who gave evidence Monday, was also quizzed about the college’s credit card policy. He said he was unaware of any policy and did not get involved in that level of detail.

A second board member, Deborah Drummond, testified Tuesday that she was unaware of the salary advance or the later agreement for repayment. She said she would have expected such matters to come before the board but they never had.

She said she had been unaware that senior UCCI staff members had college credit cards and acknowledged there was no written policy on their use that she was aware of.

However, she said she believed it was “self evident” that business credit cards should not be used for personal expenses.

“In my opinion, any personal use of business credit cards is completely irregular and I would certainly not have approved it,” she said.

Asked by Syed’s lawyer Tom Price, QC, if there was a formal written policy, she said, “I think it is self evident. It is an ethical regression that one has to put these things in writing.”

To Mr. Price’s suggestion that it was a “grey area,” she said, “You see grey; I see black and white.”

Ms. Drummond, who was part of the selection committee that recruited Syed as president, acknowledged the interview panel had not investigated his claims to have a doctorate, assuming those checks had been done at an earlier stage in the shortlisting process.

Earlier on Tuesday, the former chief officer in the Ministry of Education, Angela Martins, testified that Syed had not been on the original long list of candidates for the position but had submitted his application midway through the process. She said she had not seen his resume and had not been involved in the final selection process.

Ms. Martins said her role on the board of governors was to report back to the ministry about UCCI’s activities. She said the ministry had oversight of how its funding was used by the college but did not get involved in micro-level financials, such as the use of credit cards.

She accepted, under questioning from Mr. Price, that she had been asked by the minister of education, who at the time was current premier Alden McLaughlin, to be more supportive of Mr. Syed. She said she believed this was because she had asked for more data on financial and student performance and Syed had felt she was “out of order.”

She also acknowledged she had been placed on required leave later in 2009 but said this was nothing to do with the Syed case. She said this coincided with a change of government.

Syed is charged with 12 counts relating to misuse of college funds, including spending more than US$200,000 on college funded credit cards, obtaining a $70,000 salary advance by deception, and falsely claiming to have a doctorate in order to get the president’s job and $135,000 salary.

He denies the offenses and the trial continues.

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