By Michael Smith.
Intrepid followers of architectural tumult will recall how a letter arrived in the in-boxes of polo-necked members of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) on 11 November, from the President Robin Mandal. “Let me state there is no basis to any allegations of corruption or fraud in the organisation,” it expostulated.
Eoin O’Cofaigh, a former President, had complained about the payment of €500, 000 without any tender process to Bluebloc Digital, a company 50% owned by Odran Graby, the son of the veteran RIAI Chief Executive, John Graby, for IT services. Robin Mandal suggested in correspondence and indeed in an article in the Sunday Times that Eoin O’Cofaigh himself employed Bluebloc Digital when O’Cofaigh was president. 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, with which Mandal got confused. If O’Cofaigh employed it it was for negligible sums, not so clearly demanding a tender process.
Cutting through the confusion about alleged nepotisms, O’Cofaigh wrote perfectly reasonably of the failure to seek tenders: “None of us want a Rehab, a Positive Action, a DSCPA situation”, to the board – before resigning. With six other RIAI eminences, including ex-President Joan O’Connor.
O’Cofaigh has been the most prominent member of an RIAI ‘reform group’ campaigning against an amendment to Building Regulations, which make it mandatory for architects, and other professionals, to certify that new buildings comply with those Regulations. Many architects feel the Regulations prejudice the members of their profession by requiring stringent guarantees with little financial gain; and, less convincingly, that they prejudice the client and the public interest.
Mandal and Graby are better disposed to the Regulations, on the basis they provide work for architects. Some of the dissentients wonder if there is any compromise entailed in the RIAI supporting the Department of the Environment’s bullish stance on the Regulations and governmental funding to the RIAI of around €1m for architectural training. Brothers Aidan and Ciaran O’Connor, both RIAI members, are respectively the Environment Department official responsible for drafting the Regulations and the OPW-employed ‘State Architect’ with a key role in deciding who is contracted to carry out architectural training.
A recent article in Village speculated that the reason behind the hoo-ha was in fact existential angst in the beleaguered architectural profession and frustration with the genteel stance of the RIAI on the building-regulation burdens. However, more information has come our way via the details of now-compromised confidential talks.
The fifteen surviving ex-Presidents of the RIAI have met three times in the last two years and on two of those occasions resolved by firm majorities to seek the resignation of the CEO. Graby seems to have irritated most of the Presidents whose grand-standings it has been his solemn duty down the years to facilitate during their short and honorary ascendancies.
An anodyne note of the proceedings of one of the meetings of the ex-Presidents was prepared by Tony Reddy, architect, in whose office the meeting had convened, recognising the need for the aid of “independent experts” but omitted a controversial agreement to seek the CEO’s retirement.
Reports suggest some of the ex-Presidents are refusing to pay their membership fees until the CEO departs, though nearly all of them seem adverse to bringing negative publicity down on their beleaguered institute and few have the spine that O’Cofaigh and Joan O’Connor manifested in resigning.
More dramatically still – since he reports to them – is the mediation session for Council members that was organised in October 2014 in Bewleys Hotel, on the M50.
The meeting was confidential. Nearly all Council members, around twenty, including the President Robin Mandal, attended, with the exception, insofar as Village could ascertain, of three.
The main topic of the day was again the CEO and governance issues; and unfortunately for John Graby, the agreement by consensus was that the veteran CEO must retire.
All in attendance, including Robin Mandal, openly discussed matters in a somewhat fraught atmosphere, and it was agreed that immediately following the conclusion of the day a meeting would be arranged between the CEO, Mandal and the mediator involved to initiate the process of retirement of the CEO, and succession.
This did not happen, and two weeks later the mediation conclusion was concealed at an RIAI egm as, some might say, was their duty and entitlement. The position of the CEO was defended. This repudiation of the mediation-mandated strategy, it would appear, was a significant factor in the subsequent resignations by the seven Council members.
The first mention of this confidential process was by Robin Mandal in an October letter to members, in breach of the agreement, when he implied the mediation process was a result and symptom of lack of “cohesiveness” at Council level and “the constant onslaught and disruption by a minority”, though it is arguable it was a constructive attempt to advance discussions on the removal of the CEO sensitively outside the official Council structure in a confidential forum necessarily remote from the influence of the CEO himself.
Graby’s position is compromised in a number of respects: he is the conduit for complaints against RIAI architects but also an architect himself – a clear conflict. It is also bad practice to expect a CEO to pursue complaints against those who pay his salary. It is undesirable that he is Director of an architects’ insurance company which needs to get sensitive information about the members who pay his salary. And the provision for the President to appoint arbitrators, for which many RIAI members are qualified, could lend itself to the no-doubt inaccurate appearance of CEO influence or favouritism, if for example the recent resignees and Mandal/Graby loyalists were in competition for appointment as arbitrator.
The annual personal RIAI credit-card bill for the CEO has in some years been some tens of thousands of euro, raising jaded recessionary eyebrows. In September 2013 the triennial gold medal for achievement was awarded to Kevin Roche, expat-architect and author of the original – failed – scheme for Dublin’s Spencer Dock, in the US. John Graby and then-President Michelle Fagan flew over for the weekend courtesy of the RIAI, to New York to personally present Roche with his medal. Mrs Graby also travelled but paid for her own ticket.
On another occasion, Graby and then-President Fagan visited China for a week, together with subsidised, invited members of a select number of Irish practices. These happy few were part of a delegation, not all of whom were subsidised, to examine new business opportunities.
So – when at the AGM in September 2014 members discovered the CEO felt it was appropriate to withhold details of his salary and beneficial income from the board of the RIAI, many felt disproportionately indignant. Failure to disclose other beneficial income to him, his son or his spouse from related businesses also jars.
An accumulation of controversies and some adverse publicity is frustrating for members already under the economic cosh.
But…things are improving for the construction sector, the new RIAI Council happily contains no dissentients, and the reform group has no appetite for further aggravation, least of all where there is a risk to the standing of the RIAI to which they have long as individuals devoted themselves.
Mandal recently told members 2015 would be “the year of change” and has implied Graby, whose contractual retirement date is unknown, is on the verge of leaving.
But as he turns 70 this month, the CEO remains solidly in situ. •