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Overdraft signature at scandal-hit quango 'could have been forged'

Published 25/01/2016

The Northern Ireland Events Company brought over star acts like Sir Elton John
The Northern Ireland Events Company brought over star acts like Sir Elton John

A chairman's signature approving a £200,000 overdraft at a scandal-hit quango was considerably different from his previous signature, investigators said.

The Northern Ireland Events Company (NIEC) has been accused of presiding over a financial fiasco including falsified records.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is examining the demise of the NIEC after an auditors' report found its chief executive covered up losses with misleading and sometimes fabricated records while racking up debts of almost £1.5 million.

The publicly-funded organisation tasked with attracting star performers like Sir Elton John lost £400,000 promoting two motocross events. In response, it sought £200,000 extra borrowing.

Chairman Mervyn Elder told the committee he was not aware that the £200,000 overdraft was given the go ahead in November 2005 without a board meeting of the struggling organisation. Four members of the board and the chairman had supposedly approved the measure.

Investigators examined whether Mr Elder's signature wa s on the overdraft approval letter "falsely" submitted to the overseeing Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).

The department said: "Following the PAC hearing, we have verified that a signature reading SM Elder is on the second overdraft approval letter.

"However, the company inspectors, working with forensic accountants and forensic technology specialists, have determined that the signature is considerably different when compared with the signature on the resolution for the first overdraft."

Company inspectors were appointed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to investigate the affairs of the events company.

The NI Audit Office has criticised oversight failures by NIEC's board and DCAL to prevent what happened under the stewardship of CEO Janice McAleese.

PAC member John Dallat has said: "It was Christmas Day every day at DCAL, it just gave people's money away."

The PSNI has been investigating. Enquiries have concluded and a report will be prepared for the Public Prosecution Service, a spokeswoman said.

The company was established in 1997 as a by-product of the peace process and in its early years was instrumental in bringing star names to perform in the grounds of the Stormont Assembly, including Sir Elton and Luciano Pavarotti.

But its success was short-lived and just over a decade later, having received £18 million in public funds, it effectively folded amid the financial scandal.

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