By Michael Smith.
Floppy-haired RIAI president Robin Mandal recently wrote to members expressing his exasperation at allegations of impropriety and misgovernance at the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI). “I am genuinely at a loss to understand how there could be even a perception of lack of appropriate governance at the RIAI and, in particular, a claim by a director who resigned that Council ‘have been unwilling to address properly very serious matters of governance’”. Mandal provocatively put the resignations down to a failure of the six to “get their way” on policy change.
He also addressed concerns raised about the RIAI’s finances – the 2013 accounts show a deficit of €480,000 before tax on an operating income of €2.9m: “It is worth noting that the Institute’s independent Auditors, BDO, are on record as stating that the RIAI’s internal financial controls exceed that required/expected from an organisation of the scale of the RIAI. Notwithstanding this, I have prioritised a governance review to ensure we are operating to best practice, work of [sic] which is ongoing”.
Eoin O’Cofaigh, a disenfranchised and irritable ex-President (1998-9) of the RIAI, had complained about the payment without any tender process of €500,000 to Bluebloc digital, a company 50% owned by Odran Graby, son of veteran RIAI Chief Executive John Graby. “None of us want a Rehab, a Positive Action, a DSCPA situation”, O’Cofaigh wrote to the board before resigning. With six others. After a failed mediation process with the RIAI executive.
So what is going on in this Royal Institute?
It seems a lot of the fuss is down to personalities and the economy. O’Cofaigh was a particularly thoughtful president, promoting architecture over architects, but he has been the most prominent member of an RIAI “reform group” campaigning against an amendment to building control regulations, which make it mandatory on beleaguered architects to certify that new buildings comply. There is a perception that the executive of the RIAI is perhaps more established than some of the economically traumatised younger members for whom the additional regulatory and insurance burden has seemed like the last straw.
However, this onerous imposition is a side issue in the debate over propriety. What clouds the issue for outsiders is that the likes of O’Cofaigh and another prominent resignee, former president Joan O’Connor – a favourite architect of Treasury Holdings and boomtime member of the Docklands Authority, are scarcely callow nobodies.
The executive has always preferred to lobby the government behind the scenes on the Regulations issue and indeed the Council voted at its November meeting against seeking revocation of the amendment – but rather for its own amendment.
The Council of the RIAI – which ‘governs’ it has 26 members, not untypical for a company limited by guarantee and one of the mechanisims whereby the efficacy of NGOs is diminished. Governing bodies of this size are set up to fracture, for cabals to champion particular personalities and employees, and for gossip and leaks. It cannot be assumed that it serves the public interest for all decisions and information of the executive body led by the CEO, to be shared with the cumbrous council. Pleas to the gallery that financial information isn’t fully forthcoming resonate but may in fact not be reasonable.
Perhaps reflecting the clumsiness of the governance through Council – which is in fact the board of directors, the CEO, John Graby, appears to have been invested with too many, sometimes conflicting, powers. For example he is the conduit for complaints against RIAI architects but also an architect himself – a clear conflict. It is also bad practice to expect the chief executive to pursue complaints against those who pay his salary. And undesirable that he is Director of an architects’ insurance company which needs to get sensitive information about the members who pay his salary.
It seems to be the case that Frank McDonald, veteran Irish Times environment correspondent, whose waning ecological attentions have long had a focus on architecture and architects, is close to some of the gang of six. Their resignations were reported on the Irish Times website before they were announced to the Council at its 4 November egm. Mandal claims he was “shocked” when he first heard about the resignations from the journalist “before I had a chance to see it myself”. It is not recorded if Mandal regards it as shocking that he had lunch with the same journalist that day.
As to the substance of the allegations, it is certainly unusual that BDO signed off on accounts although the treasurer, Garrett O’Neill, had not been willing to approve them when issues were raised before the AGM in September about the propriety of the CEO not divulging his salary, but sometimes honorary officers in voluntary councils can be more squeamish than the hard-nosed corporate accounting fraternity. BDO claimed not to have been aware of the Treasurer’s concerns before the AGM but contorted to suggest that a Governance Review should be carried out as a priority. O’Cofaigh opposed such a move.
The six resignees had requested that Hayes solicitors (the RIAI’s legal advisors) and BDO be present but it turned out that the request was not forwarded. This precipitated the resignations.
It sounds like a reasonable request but it may have been unnecessary, an avoidable cost for the struggling RIAI. In any event a meeting was scheduled between the reform group and the professional advisors, but the reform group declined to attend it since it was only proposed after they resigned.
Former President, Joan O’Connor, resigned because the council had “failed in its responsibilities” to ensure that the institute was “solvent, well-run and delivering the outcomes for which it is set up; and repeated requests” from individual council members for “essential financial information” about the institute’s affairs had been met by “hostile questioning of the motives of the authors”,
President Robin Mandal – who became president after television presenter Duncan Stewart’s candidacy was ruled out on a technicality – said Ms O’Connor’s claims were “utter nonsense” and that the institute had €2.9 million in the bank. Another of the resignees wrote to Council, after the resignations and the November meeting noting: “I had no option but to resign in order to protect members’ interests. Prior to resigning I sought to put down a marker of where I thought there were ‘irregularities’ in how the RIAI was being run. Unfortunately a majority of Directors did not share these concerns and on legal advice I was told I should resign as to remain as a Director in such circumstances makes one complicit in any ‘irregularities’.
The letter refers to the resignee having received legal training and advice from a big law firm but when it comes to it it is unlikely any lawyer would recommend resignation – as opposed to continuing efforts to increase compliance – on the back of the deficiencies outlined by the reform group. The letter finishes, “I hope that helps to clarify my decision at least and that my decision to resign had nothing to do with “not getting my own way” [the Regulations]”.
Bluebloc has received €500,000 in fees over five years for computer services, without having to go through anything as pedantic as a tender process. Furthermore the sum seems at the upper end of the scale for shat would be expected for an institute for architects, even if the website does have 200,000 unique user annually. Concerns have been raised about an RIAI sister company, RIAI Insurance services limited, the beneficial ownership of which remains unclear to members and former directors apparently, though Mandal has clarified that it does not remunerate the RIAI nominees on its board. Embarrassingly Mandal designed an extension to Graby’s house before becoming President.
Damningly, the RIAI had no procurement policy up and until late November 2014.
Robin Mandal has suggested in correspondence and indeed in an article in the Sunday Times that Eoin O’Cofaigh himself employed Bluebloc Digital, a company part owned by son of CEO Odran Graby. But this is not true. Bluebloc Digital was incorporated in 2003, four years after O’Cofaigh wrapped up his presidency.
There is another company, Blue Bloc, owned by Margaret Graby and Odran Graby, wife and son of CEO John. Mr Mandal must be getting confused. The RIAI has said there’d been no direct involvement between John Graby and the company over the last four years. Bluebloc digital provides services for a number of companies including the Construction Industry Federation and Homebond of which John Graby’s brother in law is a director. The agendas of these organisations overlaps with the role of the RIAI – for example Homebond has a clear vested interest in the certification Regulation being maintained, and it might be said that the crossover poses possible conflicts of interest, for John Graby at least.
As with the Law Society CEO Ken Murphy it’s not at all clear how much Graby is paid, though the President said his salary has been benchmarked with comparable bodies and found to be in the lower range. A remuneration committee has been meeting annually but appears not to have reached a decision on the 2014 salary. The CEO had refused to divulge his income from the RIAI to the board and treasurer, though it appears he may now have divulged it to the treasurer – and it is agreed annually with the President. The honorary secretary informed members that “it” (whatever it was) has not changed in five years except that it was decreased by 10%.
The RIAI receives €1m in taxpayer funds (OPW) to administer an employment scheme for graduate training on behalf of the OPW but receives no core government funding.
The Southern Region representative on the Council summarises the issue well in a recent letter to the Council: “Should there be irrefutable proof of their accusations this should have been tabled at council. If there remains irrefutable proof or concerns of malpractice this should be passed to the Gardaí. They did not and are unable to do this, and consequently have resorted to publicly discrediting the institute. As such this only reinforces my opinion that this is muck slinging politics – but to what end and to what purpose remains a mystery”. And comments the representative made about Vivian Cummins of the reform group in a letter to RIAI Southern Region members have prompted a stand-off, with the representative now consulting a solicitor and Cummins demanding retraction of “a dozen key points which, in my opinion, were factually incorrect as they relate to me”. •