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RGU investigation was launched after whistleblower raised alarm

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A dossier sent by an unnamed whistleblower raised the alarm about a conflict of interest at the top of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

It was sent on May 14 to members of the university’s board of governors, the Press and Journal and, it is understood, the Scottish Funding Council.

The letter alleged that RGU principal Ferdinand von Prondzynski and vice-principal Gordon McConnell were both directors of a company called Knockdrin Estates Ltd, and that this was not declared during Prof McConnell’s appointment at the end of last year.

The university launched its “public interest review policy procedure”, and an investigation panel met for the first time on May 31.

It was led by convener Hamish Wilson, who is also convener of the university’s audit committee, as well as governors Roger Ramshaw and Tricia Walker, and external member Katy Gifford.

It agreed that the allegations “were sufficient to establish a prima facie case”, and an investigation was officially launched, although it was not considered appropriate to recommend the suspension of either men.

Panel members consulted a number of policies and documents, although it was noted in the report that “due to the passage of time some documents had been destroyed in accordance with the university’s retention policy”.

They first interviewed Jan Cutting, who was appointed to the vice-principal role currently held by Prof McConnell in March last year, before moving to become RGU marketing director just a few months later.

The second interview was with the university’s human resources director, followed by board chairman Mike Fleming, principal for research Paul Hagan, deputy principal John Harper, and then Prof von Prondzynski and Prof McConnell on June 26.

The internal panel ruled out any “improper or inappropriate link” between Ms Cutting’s rapid switch to a different job before Prof McConnell’s appointment, and said it was “satisfied” that there were no candidates from a 2016 recruitment round which would have been appropriate to contact regarding the vacancy left by Ms Cutting last year.

It emerged during the investigation that Prof McConnell had visited RGU in September 2015 to “give a talk and speak with some staff”, but it was found that “this had no relevance to the subsequent events”.

Investigators also discovered that Prof von Prondzynski had approached Prof McConnell to ask if he would apply for the vacancy in 2016, which he declined, and did so again last year, following a change in Prof McConnell’s circumstances.

On Prof McConnell’s subsequent appointment, the panel found that only interviewing one candidate was “not contrary to RGU recruitment policy”, that the interview panel was “appropriate and convened in accordance with the usual guidelines”, and that there was “no dissent from the decision” to give Prof McConnell the job.

The fact that the two men had worked closely together at Dublin City University was “declared to all appropriate people at all stages of the appointment process”.

However, neither declared, verbally or in writing, that they were co-directors of Knockdrin Estates Ltd, an Irish registered limited company which owned the von Prondzynski family estate in Ireland.

Prof von Prondzynski had declared in his 2017 annual declaration of interest form that he was a director of Knockdrin Estates, but did not make any declaration in relation to Francmine Ltd –an Isle of Man registered company that is a shareholder of Knockdrin Estates and of which he is also a director.

Prof McConnell’s declaration of interest form, which was signed by Prof von Prondzynski, did not mention Knockdrin Estates, of which he had been a director since 2006.

The panel found that the pair had “no additional interests to disclose”, and that Prof McConnell’s involvement in Knockdrin Estates was “minimal” and unpaid.

It concluded that the evidence pointed to a “genuine omission or oversight” on the part of both, and the panel was “satisfied that there is no evidence of any malicious motive”.

Even if the interest had been declared, the panel found that the “recruitment process would, in all likelihood, have remained the same”, and that Prof McConnell was  “appointed entirely on merit following a fair and reasonable interview process”.

Prof von Prondzynski was said to have “recognised and accepted that these issues should all have been handled differently and expressed his regret at the collateral damage that this had caused both to some people individually and to the university as an institution.”

It was accepted by the panel that Prof McConnell had “misunderstood his own disclosure obligation”, although he “admitted that he himself should have declared” his directorship.