Belfast Telegraph

Armagh Planetarium boss 'kept equipment after retirement'

By Michael McHugh

The former director of Armagh Planetarium used public funds to buy a drone and computer equipment which he kept at home months after retirement, auditors said.

Dr Tom Mason also bought a games console and flowers using the educational centre's credit card while he was responsible for accounts.

He allowed a supplier to pay for a journey to Utah one month before awarding a contract to support the planetarium's projector to the same firm without a business case or seeking other bidders for the tender.

Comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly's report said: "The role of accounting officer carries with it personal responsibilities in relation to regularity and propriety and the conduct of accounting officers should be beyond reproach.

"In my view, Dr Mason's actions were not up to this high standard, in his conduct as an accounting officer."

Dr Mason advised the auditor that in his time as director he fought to restore the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium to its place as a world-renowned centre for astronomy education and his intention was to save the planetarium as much money as possible.

The Audit Office said: "Regardless of his intentions, Dr Mason's actions in relation to these three contracts were a breach of the Planetarium's procedures and his accounting officer responsibilities."

Its report said he caused £49,969 irregular expenditure in 2015/16 and £15,582 in 2016/17.

Concerns were raised around the refurbishment of the planetarium's theatre seats and a range of other of financial issues. They included:

  • Using a Planetarium credit card to pay £422 for a retirement function in 2015.
  • Poor record keeping.
  • Using a credit card to buy £1,000 of gift cards for staff bonuses, a games console, four computer games and flowers as well as other online and supermarket expenditure.
  • A drone was bought and fraud investigators questioned whether it was value for money to purchase this item for one small shot of film.
  • £5,500 was recovered from "unjustified" credit card purchases.
  • He kept IT equipment at home almost 10 months after retirement, which was worth £9,500 new. That included laptops, a desktop computer, the drone, two cameras and a projector.
  • In March 2015 Dr Mason undertook a five-night trip to Utah in the US which was "fully-funded" by a supplier.

He did not seek prior approval from the chair of the planetarium's governing board or advice from the overseeing Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), or record it in the planetarium's hospitality register, the report said.

In April 2015 Dr Mason awarded a contract to the same supplier for three years' support of the planetarium's projector and related technology.

A business case was not prepared and he did not seek DCAL's approval for an action which exceeded his delegated authority.

He told internal auditors the purpose of the trip was to facilitate carriage of a meteorite and discuss a film which he had provided input on.

Fraud investigators recommended no further action.

On his retirement from the planetarium, Mr Mason was hailed by colleagues as an energetic and inspirational manager who made it a warm and happy place to visit and work.

He was also credited for entertaining and educating thousands of children while also spearheading efforts to revitalise what had been an ageing facility.

Belfast Telegraph

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