The University of the South Pacific's supreme body, the USP Council has established a team to investigate its vice chancellor and president Professor Pal Ahluwalia.
The formation of the investigative team was announced in a letter Pro Chancellor and chair of USP Council Winston Thompson sent to Council members. The letter was dated yesterday, 16 March 2020.
"I write to advise the Council that following legal advice and in accordance with the provisions of the ordinance to govern the discipline of the vice chancellor, and in consultation with the deputy pro vice chancellor, I have appointed a subcommittee to investigate allegations of material misconduct against vice chancellor and president Professor Pal Ahluwalia," Winston wrote in his letter, a copy of which was sent anonymously to Islands Business.
"The subcommittee comprises Mr Mahmood Khan (chair), Ms Fay Yee, Ms Petunia Tupou and Mr Semi Tukana," added Thompson in the letter.
That letter did not however specify the allegations against Professor Ahluwalia, or why two out of the four members of the investigative committee, including its chair, are Fiji Government appointees to the USP Council (Khan and Yee). Tupou is a Tongan lawyer, while Tukana is a co-opted member of the Council.
In addition, Thompson's letter sent out to all education ministers of the 12 countries of the Pacific that are owners of the university, was silent on who raised the allegations, and the perceived conflict of interest of his involvement and that of Khan in this new investigation.
It is also not clear how this subcommittee will operate, given that in its last meeting, the USP Council had formed a three-member commission to oversee the recommendations of an earlier investigation which Khan's former employer, BDO accounting firm in New Zealand had produced.
That BDO audit examined allegations of mismanagement and questionable appointments at the university that were raised by Professor Ahluwalia against his predecessor Professor Rajesh Chandra.
The BDO report has never been publicly released in its entirety. A summary released last September noted: “oversight, governance and control of remuneration is a key weakness across the university” and that four remuneration mechanisms—inducement allowances, responsibility and acting allowances, bonuses and consultancy arrangements—“have collectively been exploited and have led to significant cash leakage across USP over a number of years.”
When this magazine broke the story in May last year about the secret Ahluwalia report, Pro Chancellor Thompson was so infuriated that he told Islands Business he regretted recommending the appointment of Professor Ahluwalia, and that he would have him sacked if he had the powers to do so.
Professor Ahluwalia has since been instructed not to talk to news media, and is in self-isolation this week following a recent trip to the United States.
As we reported earlier today, Ahluwalia's self-isolation at the university's VC residence came about through the instructions of Pro Chancellor Thompson.
Contacted today, Thompson declined to comment on the letter he had sent to members of the USP Council.
"I would neither confirm nor deny," was all he said.
By Samisoni Pareti
Winston Thompson, the besieged pro chancellor of the University of the South Pacific has sought the suspension of the USP vice chancellor and president, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.
Ambassador Thompson made the request in a confidential paper he submitted to the USP Council yesterday. The council is currently meeting at a hotel in Nadi, Fiji.
At this point, IB Online is yet to confirm whether the Council is deliberating on Thompson's proposal. All that we were told was the Council meeting finished late yesterday evening because of Thompson's presentation.
It is believed that his 17-page submission concludes with eight recommendations, and that they include a call for the immediate suspension of Professor Ahluwalia and for an investigation into his performance at the regional university.
Thompson accuses the Canadian academic of tarnishing the reputation of the USP and working to undermine its operations.
The confidential paper confirms what the retired Fijian diplomat had told Islands Business magazine in May; that it was his personal wish that Professor Ahluwalia be dismissed.
It follows the leaking of a confidential report authored by Ahluwalia, which makes allegations of gross abuse and mismanagement against high level managers at the university.
The uproar triggered by the Ahluwalia report forced the USP Council to commission an independent investigation into the allegations when they met in May in Vanuatu .
That investigation is complete, but reports reaching IB Online say the BDO Auckland report was—at least initially—not tabled when the Council meeting began in Nadi yesterday.
The Council secretariat instead opted to circulate hardcopy versions of a report compiled by the USP Council's Audit & Risk Compliance committee on the BDO report.
The Compliance committee is headed by Mahmood Khan of Fiji, who is a retired partner of a BDO franchise in New Zealand.
The Council meeting in Nadi is expected to conclude later today.
Members of the University of the South Pacific Council have ended the first day of their two day meeting in Nadi, Fiji with still no official word on the outcome of their deliberations about the special investigation report on allegations of gross abuse and mismanagement by the previous management of the university.
IB Online has established that USP's pro chancellor, retired Ambassador Winston Thompson, did not chair today's session. The role went to the deputy chair of the USP Council, Alioma Johansson of Tonga.
Members of the university staff had called for Thompson to recuse himself from the investigation or from the role of pro chancellor as he was also implicated in the matter.
We have also established that Fiji's Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who was minister for education for some time last year also attended today's closed door meeting at the Tanoa International Hotel, not far from Nadi International Airport.
Also present were members of the investigating team from BDO accounting firm in New Zealand, who took Council members through the findings of their investigations. They also took questions from the Council for most of today.
IB Online is advised that for the final day tomorrow, the USP Council meeting will deliberate on actions the university ought to take in light of the recommendations of the report.
We had reported earlier that this week's meeting of the Council is strictly a hard copy paper only, with the university forbidding the distribution of electronic copies of meeting documents. This has been done apparently to avoid any leak of meeting papers.
In May this year, Islands Business had reported on the content of a confidential report questioning the speedy appointments and contract renewals for at least eleven senior members of the USP, most of them Fiji nationals working at the main campus in Suva.
The report also raised questions about the payments of professional and development leave, as well as the deferment to this year, of back pay due to the former VC. The document states that the university is now concerned that it might be cited for tax evasion by Fiji's tax authorities as a result of the deferred back payment.
At least three of those implicated in the report have close ties with the ruling Fiji First Party of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
The supreme body of the University of the South Pacific, the USP Council is meeting in Nadi, Fiji from today to discuss the report of the investigation into allegations of gross abuse and mismanagement at the regional institution.
The two-day meeting at the Tanoa International Hotel is however shrouded in deep secrecy, with reports circulating that the University Pro Chancellor, retired Ambassador Winston Thompson of Fiji directing that no electronic copy of meeting documents should be made available.
IB Online has also been reliably informed that copies of the investigators’ findings have not been circulated to council members beforehand as is the usual meeting practice. All Council members will get their copies when they attend today’s meeting.
Such a directive has got the university staff association worried, and they have told Islands Business they fear that attempts could be made to tamper or water down the content of the investigators’ report.
USP staff have repeatedly written to the USP Council to voice their concerns about the so called independence of the investigation, but these concerns have been largely ignored. They had also submitted that Thompson ought to step aside during the investigations because he is among those implicated in the allegations.
A New Zealand accounting firm, BDO was invited by the Council in July to conduct an investigation into allegations of abuse and mismanagement by the previous USP management that were highlighted in a confidential report that was authored by the university vice chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.
Staff had even questioned the appointment of BDO as investigator, given that the chair of the Council’s Audit & Risk Compliance committee was a former BDO partner.