Education Minister Rosy Akbar denies government interference in the affairs of USP, following the recent ruckus over the suspension of Vice Chancellor Prof Pal Ahluwalia.
This is hard to accept considering that Prof Ahluwalia was specifically targeted by a top management trio at USP, two of whom are Fiji government appointees on the Council – Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson and Mahmood Khan, chairman of the USP’s Audit and Risk Committee. They were supported by the Deputy Pro-Chancellor Aloma Johansson of Tonga.
Government’s footprints are all over the tactics adopted to discredit Prof Ahluwalia and hound him out of office ever since he submitted a paper to the
USP Council highlighting serious governance issues at the university under its former management.
The so-called allegations of “material misconduct” against Prof Ahluwalia were the work of Mahmood Khan, as chairman of the Audit and Risk Committee. Khan was appointed to the USP Council in May 2019. At the same time he replaced Ioane Naiveli as chairman of the Audit and Risk Committee, who was stood down by the Fiji Government.
Khan is a retired accountant from New Zealand closely related to Nur Bano, Economy Minister Sayed-Khaiyum’s aunt.
This is the same Nur Bano whose Suva accounting firm was implicated in the half a million dollar plus Rewa Dairy consultancy scam in 2010 at the time Khaiyum was Minister for commerce. Her firm was also deeply involved in the scandalous secret payment of exorbitant salaries to PM Bainimarama and AG Saiyed-Khaiyum between 2010 and 2013.
The connections here are interesting, and very political. Dr Nur Bano was formerly BDO associate in Fiji.
Khan is a former partner of BDO Auckland, the accounting firm which was appointed last year to investigate the Ahluwalia report disclosing a series of scandalous goings on at USP involving excessive over payments to selected staff through questionable bonuses, inducement payments and allowances, running into millions of dollars.
BDO Auckland was picked as the investigating entity from 4 Auckland accounting firms which bid for the job. Selection was made by Khan’s Audit and Risk Committee.
Khan’s close Fiji government connections is seen in the fact that although a non-Fiji citizen, he was also appointed to serve as Member of the Public Service Commission, and the FRCA and PAFCO boards.
In a letter to members of the USP Council on 18 June, the eve of the meeting that re-instated him, Prof Ahluwalia specifically names Khan as one of the trio “leading the move to remove him” (Islands Business facebook 18 June) .
“They have done this through a constant barrage of malicious and unfounded allegations and complaints, motivated by personal animus against me and determination to drive me out of the University.”
He says the trio got the university to hire accountancy firm KPMG to do an investigation on him at a cost of $60,000 at a time when USP finances could barely afford such extravagance. The findings of the report were never disclosed, he says.
In March 2020, 26 charges were leveled against him, with some allegations dating back to 2019. An Executive Committee held in June, considered another 33 charges. “This time the charges were a mix of new and repeated allegations. I was not given the opportunity to defend myself and none of the allegations are sustainable,” Prof Ahluwalia wrote.
He told Radio NZ he has had to endure about 10 investigations since he submitted his paper to the USP Council in February last year many involving repeated accusations, some of which had already been cleared.
He said as the whistleblower, he should have been protected but instead he was “vilified and thrown under the bus”.
Instead of focusing on instituting reforms recommended by the BDO report to secure the future of USP, the Pro Chancellor, the Deputy PC and Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee (ARC) “continue to stifle and delay those reforms by undermining my management of the University against the wishes of the Council,” he said in his letter of 18 June.
He said “constant interference deteriorated to threats, bullying and harassment” over his decision in late May to terminate on charges of plagiarism the CEO of the University’s Pacific TAFE, Hasmukh Lal of Fiji.
Soon after this, on 8 June Prof Ahluwalia was suspended pending investigations of allegations against him.
This stirred up a barrage of protests from USP students and staff as well from regional member countries.
Despite claims by Minister and USP Council member Rosy Akbar that her government had not interfered with the VC’s suspension, regional governments thought otherwise.
Nauru’s President was vehement in his claim that the Fiji government was attempting to “hijack USP” . The Samoan Prime Minister wrote to PM Bainimarama asking that Thompson be removed from the Council.
NZ representative on the Council, Prof Pat Walsh claimed that the Executive Committee led by the Pro-Chancellor had no authority to suspend the Vice Chancellor only a full Council meeting could do so.
The facts speak for themselves. Why deny the obvious?