A board member in a failed company which wasted more than £2m of public money benefited from a £100,000 property deal linked to the firm, an audit office report has said.
In a damning report published today, the Audit Office said the Bioscience and Technology Institute (BTI) failed to achieve any of its objectives — and provided no value for money.
The hard-hitting probe confirmed that none of the cash was recovered and concluded there were “widespread shortcomings”.
But the report also disclosed how BTI director Teresa Townsley, her business partner and husband Michael Townsley, plus BTI solicitor Thomas Armstrong, split a £100,000 ‘finder's fee’ with an unnamed property dealer over the purchase of a facility called Harbourgate in the Belfast Harbour Estate.
The probe identified a failure to steward the use of taxpayers' money which was lost after a botched bid to move the project to the harbour area collapsed, with key plans around the move found to have been based on “guesswork”.
“We have seen no evidence that Teresa Townsley disclosed to the board at any time the fact that she and her husband benefited from payment of the finder's fee, despite there being a number of occasions when disclosure could have been made,” said the report.
The Audit Office further notes that while board members were not paid for their work, Mr and Mrs Townsley's accountancy firm, MTF Chartered Accountants, provided services to the board and received £152,000.
On investigating the finder's fee, the Audit Office added: “We have seen no written record of any instruction to Thomas Armstrong’s solicitor, MTF or the property dealer to act on behalf of BTI to identify a building — each party claims, however, that it was orally instructed to this effect.
“The claims by Thomas Armstrong and Michael Townsley in respect of the basis of their instruction are contradictory and cannot be corroborated.”
The report added: “None of the other BTI board members claim to have known of the payment of a finder's fee, nor of the ultimate beneficiaries of the payment.”
The investigation found that Mr Armstrong received £37,500, the property dealer got £37,500, while MTF received £25,000 “paid directly into an overseas bank account held in the name of Teresa and Michael Townsley, rather than an MTF business bank account”.
The report also highlights:
- “Non-existent” formal procurement procedures.
- There were no board minutes for the last 21 months of operations.
- Invest NI was unable to produce documentation on the funding approval.
Eleven years ago it was launched in a blaze of publicity. A Government Press release said the Bioscience and Technology Institute would “promote the development of world-class, leading edge, health technologies”. But within a year it had hit trouble and collapsed before it had made any lasting mark — yet a report on its failure took more than five years to finalise.