Board of Trustees, Financial issues, Governance

“A kid in a candy shop” or scapegoat.

Peter Harvey posts…

The above quote is how Viola Sander, until 2020 Executive Assistant to the CEO of the BPS, described her behaviour when she defrauded the BPS of around £70000. So, if a child runs amok in a tempting sweetshop because the fare is “too tempting”, what is the responsibility of the caregiver or the staff? None at all?

Now that (at least some of) the details of the major fraud have emerged (see Leicester Mercury, 8 February 2022), we can be more open about questioning just what has been going on at the BPS. We plan to disclose even more disturbing information about just how dysfunctional the BPS actually is. Amongst the multitude of questions to be raised in this particular instance, I want to focus on three main areas (1) how Ms Sander was selected and appointed; (2) why the oversight of her activities was so defective; (3) the accountability of her managers.

Just to remind you, Viola Sander had form, as the following extract from the Leicester Mercury makes clear

In 1984 she was prosecuted for a dishonesty offence and using ‘a false instrument’ and in 1998 she was given a 12 month suspended sentence for theft from an employer, the court heard.

That sentence was activated the following year, when she committed further thefts as an employee, and was jailed for a total of 15 months.

In 2006 she was given a community order for stealing from an employer.

In July 2014 she was jailed for two years for defrauding Leicester University out of £30,000.

She has 17 previous crimes to her name.

Selection

The post was Executive Assistant to the CEO – an important post, no doubt – but did its filling actually need to be outsourced to an external agency? The bland statement from the President to The Senate (7 February 2022) tells us that

“…the BPS used an external agency to perform reference checks for new employees…”

I can understand why the most senior posts within the BPS might benefit from being able to access a wider range of potential candidates than standard advertising might do, but this is not at that level. Surely, within the BPS administrative structure, there are able and competent managers part of whose job is to select and appoint staff? In addition, it is hard to comprehend why a psychological society with access to many specialists in organisational and occupational psychology as well as to many senior professionals who have extensive experience of selection, failed to use what expertise it has so readily available. Not only will this catastrophic failure have cost a good deal of money (from members’ subscriptions, of course) and caused serious damage the BPS’s reputation, it was quite unnecessary. Who authorised and approved the use of an external agency? Who chose the agency? What tendering and evaluation of the various bids took place? Who oversaw the process and was responsible for signing off the short-list? Did anyone actually check whether admission of previous criminal activity was included in the selection criteria (she is quoted as saying that she never told anyone because no-one asked)? What redress has been sought by the BPS from the agency? And who in the BPS hierarchy has been disciplined for gross negligence? And who, of those clearly accountable within the BPS, is still in post?

Oversight

This heading should be seen as ironical. Again, from the Leicester Mercury

The criminal activity began in August 2018 and continued until it was discovered in January 2020.

and

…a 17-month crime spree, which involved more than 900 fraudulent transactions.

There is reason to believe that the total amount may be higher than £70000 as there are a number of unaccounted for transactions.

From the Leicester Mercury again

Viola Sander’s underhand activity included spending £26,000 on Amazon purchases as well as £1,470 on hairdos at a Nicky Clarke salon and £450 on a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.

Her taste for the high life also saw her spend £1,981 on taxis, £1,369 at an opticians, £600 on lingerie while also treating herself to trips to Paris and Frankfurt, a cruise, watches, a sofa and other indulgences

Was there no upper limit to expenditure that needed approval from a senior member of staff? Didn’t procedures within the BPS require that any expenditure over £1000 needed prior authorisation? Was there a level within the BPS at which non-compliance with procedures was routine? To say that there was a failure of oversight is something of an understatement. Were full and detailed receipts submitted? Were they elegant forgeries, crude alterations or simply non-existent? And if they were, who at Director level signed them off?  Did no-one smell a rat? Did any junior staff become suspicious? If so, did they feel safe to raise them with those above them? Or did they raise them and they were ignored? Who was Ms Sander ultimately accountable to? Has anyone else within the organisation been disciplined for incompetence?

Accountability

Someone in the BPS was managerially responsible for this employee – she reported to someone. Someone in the BPS was responsible for scrutinising receipts and expenses claims. Someone in the BPS was responsible for the day-to-day monitoring of finances. Someone in the BPS has the responsibility to ensure the financial probity of the organisation.  Who set up and monitored the financial controls and procedures? We understand that there had been a previous recent (unconnected) fraud following which strict financial controls were put in place. Were these followed or was there a culture of non-compliance? Would it be too much to suggest that the ultimate financial management the organisation starts with the Director of Finance (DoF)? The CEO and DoF were suspended after the discovery of the fraud. However, the DoF left soon after that as reported by the Third Sector 

“…it was revealed that the charity’s chief executive, Sarb Bajwa, was on “extended leave”, according to the charity, and its director of finance and resources, Harnish Hadani, resigned in December 2020 to start a new role.

Note that the resignation of the DoF took place whilst he was suspended. So one of the key individuals who would be able to throw some light onto this murky affair is not available for comment. This is particularly important as his Linkedin page records that, during his time as Executive Director of Finance and Resources at the BPS, he was responsible for  

“…finance, human resources, facilities and procurement.”

We believe that he is currently CFO/Finance Director of the National Lottery Community Fund.

But others must take their share of responsibility too. These are the Trustees. One of the key tasks of Trustees of a charity is 

As a trustee you must take steps to make sure that your charity’s money is safe, properly used and accounted for. Every trustee has to do this. Even if your charity has an expert to manage its finances, you are still responsible for overseeing your charity’s money

So however much they might want to distance themselves, each and every one of the Trustees in post during the time of the fraud bears some responsibility.

We have identified in other posts (see here and here) the significant failure of the BPS to ensure the true independence of Trustees. The Board, as currently constituted, is simply made up of members with multiple roles in the BPS and long-serving BPS junkies. I would suggest that a truly independent Board with expertise and insights into the actual management of a large organisation and with nothing to lose by rocking the boat, might have avoided this scandalAnd note that the proposal for three new trustees outlined in the Charter changes goes nowhere near far enough to remedy this problem.

This is a shameful and sorry reflection on the British Psychological Society.  And we need to remember that the Vice-President (President during the time of fraud), in his resignation letter, stated that he had 

“… repeatedly raised concerns about aspects of the management of the Society and inadequacies in the oversight the Board has provided.”

and, further

“I believe this has also been evidenced in the failure to communicate openly with members or staff about the issue of irregular expenses payments made to a former member of staff and the serious inadequacies of financial controls that were identified in the subsequent external investigation…”

The President-Elect (who could not possibly have been involved in this), who set out his stall to change and reform matters, was cruelly hounded out of his elected position and publicly vilified. This dysfunctional and misgoverned Society needs radical reform which won’t happen either by glossing over past problems or by aspirational Pollyanna statements (see here). In their joint statement to the membership, the President and the recently returned CEO stated

“…we will need to be open, flexible, and reflective to meet these challenges. We can commit from the outset, however, always to do our best to communicate openly and transparently, and to be the sharer of good news and bad.”

If we are to take this seriously then they can start by being open and transparent about all of what has gone on with this case. And despite the continued references to the “…last twelve months..” we would remind you that many of the problems identified here have existed for years and remain unexamined and unacknowledged. Perhaps now would be good time to put these claims of openness to the test.

2 thoughts on ““A kid in a candy shop” or scapegoat.

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