Investigation and reporting of potentially criminal activities by University of Otago senior academic staff.
From: D. Mackie
I am a citizen of Aotearoa, living in Aotearoa. I am making an Official Information Act request to obtain information from the University of Otago.
Briefly, I seek details about the University of Otago response to reports of potentially criminal activities carried out by University of Otago senior academic staff to misappropriate >$300,000 of publicly funded resources and equipment. Below, some of the context is given so that my detailed request for the information is clear.
1. Nature of potentially criminal activity
In a letter written by the Director of HR at University of Otago, dated 23 April 2023, regarding senior staff of the Department of Marine Science, the University of Otago has accepted that:
• “It was commonplace for many years that staff had other staff carry out work of personal benefit to them, for example repairs to private vehicles.”
• “Practices also included taking consumables (more than the occasional pen or photocopying) and ‘borrowing’ and not returning tools.”
It is difficult to interpret these behaviours as anything other than a criminal misuse of resources that are largely publicly funded. The University of Otago is more than 80% funded by government. Therefore, there is strong public interest in understanding how the University of Otago has responded to reports of potentially criminal misappropriations of publicly funded resources.
2. Value misappropriated
The University of Otago has repeatedly stated in responses to several OIA requests, that it holds no information about the value of these misappropriations and that it has not conducted any investigation to determine the value.
However, I have had conversations and correspondence with:
a) The staff coerced and cajoled into performing tasks such as repairs to private vehicle
b) The staff responsible for the care of consumables and tools that were taken.
My estimate, based on these sources, is that resources and equipment with a minimum value of $15,000 were misappropriated each year between the early 1990’s (possibly earlier) and 2021 or 2022, giving a cumulative total of greater than $300,000.
3. Information about misappropriations held by University of Otago
In 2016, a verbal report of the misappropriations was made to then Head of Department (Marine Science). A whole department email indulgently downplaying the practices was issued. However, it was also stated to the person making the report that additional appropriate actions would be and had been taken. Nevertheless, rather than ceasing, the misappropriations became more covert and continued until at least 2021.
When the covert misappropriations were rediscovered, another verbal report was made to University of Otago HR in 2021, and shortly afterwards, the issue was raised the in writing with the Division of Sciences HR Manager.
Subsequently, in late 2021 or early 2022, one of the key senior academic staff responsible for misappropriations, stated (in writing) that a detailed account of their misappropriations had been made to the Pro Vice Chancellor (PVC) of Sciences.
In an email of early 2022, the Division of Sciences HR Manager stated that the matter had been passed to the PVC Sciences and rested with them. (This appears to be contrary to the official University of Otago policy regarding misappropriations).
The senior staff member who self-reported misappropriations also stated (in a different communication) that they had knowledge of other senior academic staff who had also misappropriated resources. This information (that a staff member had knowledge of other persons misappropriating resources) was also passed on to HR in writing.
THEREFORE it is clear that the University of Otago holds information about potentially criminal activity by multiple senior academics of the Department of Marine Science over a period of many years.
However, in February 2023, a conversation occurred between the person originally reporting the misappropriations (in both 2016 and 2021) and the Director of HR. The conversation included discussion of the misappropriations and their reporting. The Director of HR stated that as no formal report had been made by the original reporter directly to the Director of HR, then the matter was not officially recognised by the University and thus no investigation had been or would be made, and therefore no action could or would be taken. That is, the misappropriations were “unofficially” known to the Director of HR but no action had been taken.
A formal report about the misappropriations was subsequently made, resulting in the letter of 23 April 2023 referred to above.
4. Assessment of criminality
In response to a report of all these issues, as a protected disclosure, The Office of the Auditor General, has advised me, if I consider criminal activity has occurred, to “refer that matter to a law enforcement agency, such as the New Zealand Police.”
I do consider that criminal activity has occurred. However, neither I, nor the HOD who was informed in 2016, nor the Divisional HR Manager who was informed in 2016, nor the PVC Sciences, nor the Director of HR, are qualified to make such a determination.
Therefore, the issue should have been referred to appropriately qualified persons, external to the University of Otago, for an assessment of criminality and to determine the obligations of the University of Otago to report the misappropriations (e.g. NZ Police, Auditor General etc.), and to determine the obligations of the University of Otago to attempt to recover resources.
5. Purpose of this request
The primary purpose of this request is to obtain information to assess the University of Otago’s oversight of the spending of public funds.
Another purpose of this request is to obtain information to understand how the University of Otago responds to reports of potentially criminal activity of staff. (That is, the idea that while the University may know about an issue, that it can be ignored if the issue has not been “formally” reported).
Another purpose of this OIA request is to obtain sufficiently detailed information so that a report can be made to the NZ Police for an assessment of criminality. Alternatively, if an assessment of criminality has already been made, then a purpose of this OIA request is to obtain information about such an assessment of criminality.
Another purpose of this OIA request is to obtain information to determine if senior academic staff are held to the same ethical and moral standards as other staff of the University of Otago.
6. Information requested
In all cases for the information requested, I am comfortable if names are redacted.
I seek the 2016 whole department email written by the then Head of Department (of Marine Science) about appropriate use of resources.
I seek details of other actions taken in 2016 to verify and address the misappropriations, and to prevent further misappropriations.
I seek details of misappropriations that occurred after the report in 2016.
I seek the evidence used by the University of Otago to make the statement in the letter of 23 February 2023, acknowledging the misappropriations.
I seek any University of Otago policy or similar guidance for HODs, or HR staff about responding to reports of misappropriations by junior staff, including advising staff on how to make a report that ‘counts’. For example, if both verbal and written reports about misappropriations have been made to senior HR staff by a junior member of staff, and at some later stage the Director of HR has been informed about this report, then it does not seem appropriate for the Director of HR to state no investigation will be made because no formal report has been made directly to the Director of HR.
I seek to establish ‘who knew what, and when’ about the misappropriations. Therefore, I seek any discussion concerning the misappropriations made prior to the formal report. Such staff may include:
• The Division of Sciences HR Manager
• PVC Sciences
• Director of HR
• Other senior leadership team members
I seek any acknowledgement from the NZ Police or other regulatory or law enforcement agency that the misappropriations and other potentially criminal activities were reported by the University of Otago. For example, such reporting might be made to obtain a determination about criminality.
I seek any discussion concerning any obligation (or lack of such an obligation) to further investigate the misappropriations, or to report the misappropriations a law enforcement (e.g. NZ Police) or other agency (e.g. Tertiary Education Commission, Auditor General).
I seek any legal advice received by the University of Otago about any obligation (or lack of such an obligation) to report the misappropriations a law enforcement (e.g. NZ Police) or other agency (e.g. Tertiary Education Commission, Auditor General).
I seek any discussion concerning the recovery of the misappropriated resources from current and former staff of the University of Otago.
I seek any discussion concerning sanctions, penalties etc. that could have been, or were, applied to current staff who known to have misappropriated resources.
I seek any information about the tax status of the misappropriated resources. For example, perhaps the misappropriated resources were retrospectively classified as what the IRD describes as “Free, subsidised or discounted goods and services”? I seek any calculation or estimate of the aggregate total tax liability incurred by the University of Otago for the benefit so supplied to staff between 2000 and 2023, for example as Fringe Benefit Tax.
I seek any calculation or estimate of the value of resources misappropriated between 2000 and June 2016. Note that the 2016 date is when the issue was first reported to the then Head of Department, and the 2000 date is arbitrary (because the practices predate that year).
I seek any calculation or estimate of the value of resources misappropriated between June 2016 and November 2023. (That is misappropriations that occurred after the first reporting).
I seek the total value recovered by the University of Otago for resources misappropriated between 2000 and 2023.