An inquiry into the misuse of funds at Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech) has found violations of the university's rules, but no evidence of fraud, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.
The final report, conducted by the Taltech rectorate, said a re-examination of the entire project management field was needed, along with the necessary changes to ensure smooth and compliant project management.
In August, media reports appeared following the actions of a whistle blower who had gone to Taltech Rector Jaak Aaviksoo in March to express concerns about irregularities, primarily surrounding the receiving of monies for work on a specific project at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance (RNI), by people who had not actually worked on the project.
Since nothing seemed to have been done despite Aaviksoo's assurances that it was in hand, the whistle blower, Keegan McBride, a former RNI employee and current PhD student at Taltech, took his story to daily Postimees.
Subsequent Postimees articles revealed Taltech had invested in costly time management software, whose documentation revealed an unsigned time sheet relating to the project in question, the OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) project, and one of the people allegedly receiving payment for projects they had not worked on, Professor Wolfgang Drechsler.
An interim report by Taltech said that no serious wrongdoing had occurred, and that the irregularities were simply oversights, particularly with regard to worksheets, which Aaviksoo, who at the time faced calls from Taltech alumni to resign, said were missing, and therefore could not have been forged. The latest report largely reiterates this line.
More training and guidance needed
On Aug. 23, the day after the initial Postimees article was published, Aaviksoo ordered the formation of an internal university inquiry committee to verify or otherwise the daily's allegations, and to make suggestions for future management decisions, and it is this report's results which have been announced Tuesday.
The latest report also said additional contributions to strengthening the project management support system at the university should be carried out, including additional training and advice for project managers and research team members, as well as the production of additional guidance material.
In addition, implementing a comprehensive university-wide project management software was needed, the report said.
"The violation of the rules governing project management is regrettable," said Renno Veinthal, chairman of the committee of inquiry and Vice Rector of research at Taltech.
"In addition to strong scientific results, established rules must be adhered to in order to guarantee the credibility of science and researchers," Veinthal continued.
"However, we did not find any evidence of any crime, and the commission concluded that the allegations of fraud in the [original] Aug.22 Postimees article were unfounded," he continued.
The inquiry commission also asked for clarification from the consortium lead partner, which said that the Taltech project team had fully fulfilled its obligations.
Inquiry main findings
Reporting of direct and indirect costs on the project had been faulty. As a result, the field on direct costs included costs which should have been included in indirect costs, the committee found.
The report also stated that in-house communication had been inadequate – the roles of project team members were not well understood and there was no common knowledge of the composition and tasks of the research team, it said.
The committee also found that the OGI project team had not sufficiently documented its activities on the project. Some publications also lacked a proper reference to the project.
Furthermore, whereas part-time tables signed by part-time workers were partially available for the first period of the project, the report found, with the second period of the project, most employees' time sheets had not been signed.
No evidence backing Postimees allegations, says committee
Over the course of a month, the commission investigated the veracity of all of the Postimees allegations, questioned all scientists involved in the OGI project, reviewed all submitted evidence, and analyzed European Commission rules and Taltech's financial and content reports to the European Commission.
The Postimees article focused primarily on one aspect of the implementation of the project action plan, ie. content reporting.
"Project work is not just about producing content reports, but about completing the entire work plan," Veinthal said.
Veinthal confirmed that the evidence provided by the researchers proves their direct or indirect involvement in the project. He explained that the core elements of the OGI project were the creation of a theoretical base, development activities, including synergies with other consortiums based on OGI results, the dissemination of results, including the preparation and publication of publications, and research team guidance.
The committee highlighted inconsistencies between hourly time tables and the specifics of academic work.
"The fact that academic staff can show a maximum of 40 hours per week on weekdays, and only on weekdays, is not in line with actual research and creative practice," Veinthal said.
Veinthal also stressed that working hours and the breakdown of hours between project work and other work within the work time table should be interpreted as outlining the proportion of time between different tasks. Such an approach is also supported by the explanatory memorandum of a government regulation, entitled "Conditions and Procedures for Eligible Expenditure for Structural Assistance for the Period 2014-2020, Payment and Financial Corrections".
The committee of inquiry is to publish the final report as soon as possible, following consultation with partners.
Taltech will reportedly still be subject to an ongoing prosecutor's office investigation, as well as European Commission investigations.
Editor: Andrew Whyte