Failed Bioscience and Technology Institute directors aren’t talking
Pressure is mounting on directors involved in a disastrous bid to establish a cutting-edge medical research facility in Northern Ireland to speak publicly on the fiasco.
The Bioscience and Technology Institute was launched 12 years ago with high-level Government support, but collapsed in 2002 without delivering any of its goals while leaving the taxpayer with a £2.2m bill.
This week a scathing report by Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee branded it one of the starkest examples of incompetence and mismanagement ever seen in Northern Ireland.
Much of the focus has centred on former director Teresa Townsley and her husband Michael, who pocketed a £25,000 fee for finding premises.
Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph attempted to contact four other former board members of the failed project — however, none were available to take our calls.
- Prof Paddy Johnston, dean of Queen’s University’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences.
- Prof Peter Passmore, professor of geriatric medicine at Queen’s University;
- Prof Roy Spence, a former pro-chancellor of the University of Ulster and a consultant surgeon at Belfast City Hospital.
A fourth, Will McKee, joined the board in December 2000.
Attempts were made to contact all four, but none responded to our inquiries. A secretary for Mr Johnston said he was in London ahead of a visit to the United States.
Speaking last night, DUP MLA Adrian McQuillan, a member of the PAC, said it was time they broke their silence.
“They are the people charged with running the company, and it’s up to them to answer the questions put to them, whether they are coming from Stormont or journalists,” he said. “Somebody has to start answering some questions here. They were involved, let’s hear what they have to say.”
On its formation in November 1998, BTI’s board comprised four directors.
Three of these were clinicians linked to Belfast City Hospital — Mr Johnston, Mr Spence and Mr Passmore — while the fourth was Mrs Townsley, a partner in MTF Chartered Accountants.
Mr McKee joined the board in December 2000 as chairman. Like Mrs Townsley, he came from a business background.
Board members were not paid for their work with BTI.
However, MTF, which provided administrative support to the board, received £127,000 for book-keeping services. That did not include the Townsleys’ £25,000 share of a £100,000 finder’s fee when Harbourgate was purchased.
The four directors were interviewed as part of the Audit Office investigation into BTI.
According to the report, two of the directors told investigators they had been “commercially naive” and relied too heavily on those with greater commercial experience in the operation of the company.
Mr McKee, Mr Johnston and Mr Passmore said they were unaware of the £100,000 finder’s fee for the Harbourgate building.
Some directors referred specifically to the undue influence of Mrs Townsley. One claimed board members “totally and implicitly trusted” her.
However, the Audit Office report concluded that responsibility went beyond Mrs Townsley.
“We note that, as company secretary, Teresa Townsley was responsible for corporate administration and for ensuring that BTI complied with regulatory requirements, both legal and financial,” it added.
“Nevertheless, the directors as a whole were ultimately responsible for corporate governance.”
Speaking on Wednesday, Mrs Townsley claimed she had been “scapegoated” over BTI’s collapse.
“I do not understand why I’m being held responsible as one director of a total board,” she told the BBC.
Woman in eye of the storm snubs Telegraph readers
The woman at the centre of the doomed Bioscience and Technology Institute has refused to answer questions on the affair.
Teresa Townsley said she would not be speaking to the Belfast Telegraph because she “didn’t like” our coverage of the scandal.
“Just because I’m living out here doesn’t mean I haven’t seen your coverage,” she said.
“I saw the Telegraph last night and it had pictures splashed all over the place.
“I really don’t want to speak to the Telegraph. I just think you have been very unfair, not looked at the facts at all.
“I decline to speak to you.”
Asked what the facts were, she hung up.
Mrs Townsley is under pressure after it emerged she received a £25,000 finder’s fee — paid into an offshore account in the Townsleys’ name.
Her MTF Chartered Accountants firm also received £127,000 from the institute for bookkeeping work while she was a board member.
The Townsleys now live in Barcelona, where they run a sailing school.
They were pictured in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday enjoying their new life abroad.
While Mrs Townsley declined to speak to this newspaper, she did give an interview to the BBC on Wednesday.
She rejected claims from Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee that BTI had been one of the worst examples of incompetence and mismanagement, and insisted directors “did their best with it”.
“This was a project (which was) carefully supervised by senior civil servants in terms of the funding, the grant claims, and every step we were being helped and directed by senior civil servants,” she added.
“So if they’re saying that, they are saying their own people were incompetent, civil servants were incompetent.
“Yes, things didn’t work properly, but I think everyone did their best with it.”
On the £25,000 finder’s fee, she added: “The fee wasn’t just for finding the (Harbourgate) premises. It was for time spent locating appropriate premises, advice ... the board minutes of the bioscience institute record all of the detail of the work.”
Turning to the £127,000 payment to her accountancy firm, she said every professional who provided work to the institute was paid. Mrs Townsley also said it was unlikely she would fight moves by the Department of Enterprise to disqualify her as a director.
“It’s very difficult because I can’t afford to fight this,” she added. “The department will drag it on and drag it on.
“I’m going to have to accept this one way or the other, but I think it’s incredibly unfair.”
Questions Townsley must answer
1 You both received a £25,000 finder’s fee for an overpriced and unsuitable building. How do you justify this? Will you return the money?
2 Harbourgate cost £5m and was totally unfit for purpose. Do you believe it’s value for money?
3 Do you believe it appropriate your company, MTF Chartered Accountants, was paid £127,399 by BTI to oversee its book-keeping?
4 As a businesswoman, does Mrs Townsley accept this represented a conflict of interest?
5 Can Mrs Townsley explain why she double-claimed for a visit to San Diego in 2001, in which a £4,854 bill was submitted for a trip already paid for?
6 Mrs Townsley refused to meet staff from the Audit Office during their investigation. Why?
7 Members of the Public Accounts Committee have said Mrs Townsley should come back here to help answer outstanding questions. Will she do that?
8 The PAC have also recommended that aspects of the case are |referred to the PSNI. Does Mrs Townsley agree?
9 Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph published photographs of you both relaxing in Spain. Mr Townsley said “sailing in the sun beats work any day”. Does this give the right impression to taxpayers, who have lost out on at least £2.2m?
10 Will Mrs Townsley apologise for her role in the collapse of BTI?