Belfast Telegraph

Living it up... the man who’s invited pals to join him in his adventures on the Med while a storm rages over lost millions

By Adrian Rutherford

A storm over wasted millions continues to brew in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, Michael and Teresa Townsley are enjoying a relaxing lifestyle in the Mediterranean sunshine.

Life is now very different for the couple at the centre of the Bioscience and Technology Institute scandal.

After setting up home in Barcelona, their time is spent sailing the seas and relaxing in the warm weather.

The Townsleys operate MT Sail and Power, a sailing school in the Spanish port city. And while taxpayers are left picking up the tab for the BTI scandal, the couple are clearly enjoying their new life abroad.

On his Facebook page, Mr Townsley writes: “Sailing in the sun beats work any day.”

He tells friends he is an ocean yachtmaster, adding: “Join me on the adventures in the Med.”

It is a long way from the storm which is raging back home, with a Public Accounts Committee report throwing the spotlight back on the BTI saga.

Mrs Townsley was a director of the doomed company which crashed in 2002, costing the taxpayer millions while failing to deliver any of its targets. She was criticised for sharing a £100,000 fee for finding premises for the institute at Harbourgate, a shell building near Sydenham in east Belfast.

Mrs Townsley received £25,000; BTI solicitor Thomas Armstrong got £37,500, as did an unnamed property developer — even though the £5m building was apparently overpriced and far from suitable for the purpose.

The Townsleys’ share was paid directly into an offshore account held in their name, rather than a business bank account.

It also emerged that Mrs Towns

ley’s private company earned £127,000 in fees from BTI, while a media production company in which Mr Townsley was a director and shareholder got £10,200.

Yet, the scandal appears far from the thoughts of Mr and Mrs Townsley as they enjoy life in the Spanish sunshine.

Photographs obtained by the Belfast Telegraph show the couple posing in a series of picturesque locations.

One captures Mrs Townsley behind the wheel of a yacht, while another shows her husband relaxing with friends — including one clad in a bikini.

The company’s website makes no reference to the Townsleys’ problems.

Michael’s profile states that before setting up the sailing school, he had a career in accountancy and commerce with technology companies — but does not mention BTI.

On another social networking site, he states: “I was an accountant in a past life but now I go sailing.”

Instead, his sailing school’s website is packed with details of its courses and yachts.

It includes a luxury Elan 434 yacht available for cruises and charter, which is named The Moondance Of Carrickfergus.

Their website describes Barcelona as “one of the most spectacular sailing locations in Europe”.

Writing on his Facebook site, Mr Townsley boasts of his trips around the Mediterranean.

One states: “We have just completed a great five-day sail around Menorca.

“The crew managed to find a party in every anchorage and cala.”

In another post, written last February, he thanks friends for their positive feedback.

“Hi everyone, I am having a great birthday in Menorca. Thanks for all the great comments. I am off sailing next week. I hope the weather stays this good. Now to the pub for a few pints!” he writes.

The family, however, have insisted they have paid a high price for their involvement with the institute.

Mrs Townsley claimed the BTI debacle has left her unemployed and unemployable back in Northern Ireland, and ruined her health.

“I have been through hell and back.

“I sat for six months contemplating if suicide would take it away,” she said in an interview earlier this year.

“I had a serious nervous breakdown. I spent five years under serious medical care. I suffer from depression. I have good days and bad days. I have been scapegoated. I have been treated very unfairly, very inequitably.”

She has consistently denied any wrongdoing, but said she has no plans to return the money.

This is just so unfair, whines ex-director of failed project

The glamorous lifestyle of the couple at the centre of a disastrous bid to establish a ground-breaking medical research facility in Northern Ireland can today be revealed by the Belfast Telegraph.

Michael and Teresa Townsley are pictured enjoying a new life in the Spanish sunshine — while taxpayers are left picking up a multi-million pound bill following the collapse of the Bioscience and Technology Institute (BTI).

Mrs Townsley was a director in the institute, which crashed in 2002 without meeting any of its targets and wasting at least £2.2m of public money.

Her husband Michael has also been criticised after firms he was linked to were awarded substantial contracts by BTI without a proper tendering process.

The couple have since left Northern Ireland and now run a sailing school in Barcelona.

Mrs Townsley declined to fully co-operate with the Audit Office investigation.

On his Facebook page, Mr Townsley writes: “Sailing in the sun beats work any day.”

John Dallat, a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said people would be angry to see the Townsleys living it up abroad while millions of pounds have been lost through the doomed project. “There are too many unanswered questions, and these people should come home to help answer them,” he said.

This week a PAC report described the BTI debacle as one of the starkest examples of incompetence and mismanagement seen in Northern Ireland.

“It would be difficult to overstate how badly this project was handled,” the report concluded.

BTI was established in 1998 as a not-for-profit company to provide biotechnology incubator facilities at Belfast City Hospital, and it secured £2.2m in public funding.

The company bought a second building, Harbourgate, in East Belfast, but it was unfit for purpose.

The building was never used, did not generate any income and was repossessed by the banks.

According to the report, BTI paid over the odds for Harbourgate, handing £5m to the owner which, “coincidentally”, was the same as the maximum amount of cash held by the institute.

Mrs Townsley had shared a £100,000 ‘finder’s fee’ relating to the building, with £25,000 paid directly into an offshore bank account in the Townsleys’ name.

Concerns were also expressed at £127,000 paid to the couple’s accountancy firm, MTF Chartered Accountants, to oversee BTI’s book-keeping.

Last night Mrs Townsley said she was being singled out for blame while others walked away.

She told BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra programme that she felt she had been treated “incredibly unfairly”.

She said she was being punished for decisions taken collectively by the institute's board.

Ms Townsley said she had co-operated with everyone who had examined the issue and as far as she understood, no complaint had been made to the police.

The report's five most damning findings

1. The move to Harbourgate was given the green light even though the building was unsuitable for use and, at a cost of £5m, did not represent good value for money.

2. When approving the purchase of Harbourgate, DETI and its agencies failed to ensure the project was fully financed. As a result, there was a £2.7m shortfall.

3. Company inspectors were repeatedly unable to access important documents. A file was also destroyed by Invest NI four months after it was requested by auditors.

4. The appointment of the Townsleys’ MTF Chartered Accountants company to administer the start-up of BTI — at a cost of £68,000 — points towards a culture of “cronyism”.

5. Members found it hard to accept why disciplinary action was not taken against the former IDB chief executive Sir Bruce Robinson.

Townsleys probed for conflict of interests in 2006

Teresa and Michael Townsley’s business affairs had previously been investigated following the couple’s role in another publicly-funded project.

The Emerging Business Trust (EBT) was established in 1996 to provide loans to fledgling firms, but ceased operating in 2005 amid controversy over conflict of interest issues.

Mrs Townsley was deputy chairwoman and secretary of EBT while her company, MTF Chartered Accountants, administered the trust’s operations.

Despite her key role, the Townsleys’ accountancy firm was paid £1.4m in consultancy fees between 1997 and 2005 — though no tendering process took place.

A conflict of interest probe led to a damning report in May 2006 by the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Investigators found “extensive conflicting relationships” between the Townsleys and a number of EBT-supported companies.

A copy of its report, obtained by the Belfast Telegraph, states: “This is one of the worst cases of conflict of interest and impropriety that this committee has seen.”

The report found that every one of Lord Nolan's seven principles of public life have been breached — selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

A document notes how the investigation was hampered by the inability to interview Mrs Townsley on key issues “due to the state of her health”.

Although she provided a written statement, this appears to have fallen well short of what was required from her. The PAC report added: “Mrs Townsley's detailed comments ... fall far short of an adequate explanation for what was a disgraceful conflict of public and private interests.”

However, the Department of Enterprise failed to take any disqualification action against Mrs Townsley on that occasion.

The PAC report was highly critical of the department’s role, describing how problems continued for seven years before any action was taken.

“Most worryingly, (it) knew of the conflicts of interest ... but, to our astonishment, took no action,” it stated.

The report added: “The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has a history of inadequate oversight ... this latest case plumbed new depths in the extent to which the department failed to ensure that the basic principles of the proper conduct of public business were observed.”



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