An employment tribunal brought by two academics, claiming they were unfairly dismissed by Swansea University for gross misconduct for not declaring personal equity stakes and roles in the £ 200m Life Sciences and Wellness Village project, has heard closing submissions.
Former dean of the university’s school of management Prof Marc Clement, and colleague Steven Poole, were sacked in 2019 after a protracted independent investigation following their suspensions in November, 2018. They increased their appeals. Also dismissed for gross misconduct was the university’s former vice-chancellor Prof Richard B Davies.
His dismissal was not related to any proposed equity stakes in the wellness village at Delta Lakes, in Llanelli, which before being shelved was seeking a £ 40m contribution from the City Deal for the Swansea Bay City Region. The wellness village, which had identified a number of potential industrial partners and investors, was a joint venture between the university, Carmarthenshire County Council and development partner Sterling Health, headed by its chief executive Franz Dickmann.
While advised by law firm Capital Law, both Prof Clement and Mr Poole are representing themselves in the tribunal in Cardiff. Denying wrongdoing they have maintained any proposed personal equity in wellness village related projects under Sterling, were just earlier indicative charts drawn up by Mr Dickmann and that new ownership structures would needed to have been created with due diligence from the UK and Welsh governments also required before sign off on any City Deal funding and backing from private sector investors. Prof Clement said his proposed equity trust in the project had been communicated to then chair of the university’s council Sir Roger Jones.
In his submission Prof Clement said that Mr Dickmann had “felt enpowered to impose corporate structures on the future cooperation of the wellness village.”
He added: “He misguidedly felt able to propose executive functions and equity distribution. In my case he offered me a proposition of his personal equity. I felt that the university’s policies and procedures allowed me to receive this, as long as it was declared. I discussed the project development with Sir Roger Jones. He agreed that the right thing to do was to receive the equity to support learning and research in the field of life sciences to benefit the region. ”
The tribunal earlier heard statements given by Sir Roger to QC Diya Sen Gupta, who conducted the university investigation following the suspensions, that while he was aware of early stage proposals for the university’s involvement in the project he had no knowledge of any proposed equity stakes for either Mr Clement, Mr Poole and former university colleague Bjorn Rodde. A proposed equity stake of 2% for former Swansea University registrar, Raymond Ciborowski, was also set out in Mr Dickmann’s ownership charts.
Sir Roger described Prof Clement as someone you had “to counter your fingers” after shaking hands with.
Prof Clement’s declaration of interest mentioned ’emergent corporate structures’, but not specifically any equity interest. He insisted that his original trust stake, of 24%, would have been diluted to just 4% on private sector investment.
The tribunal heard that Mr Poole made a declaration of interest relating to the wellness village after charts showing him in a finance director role and with 5% stake came to the attention of the university’s then finance director Rob Brelsford-Smith. It also heard that Mr Dickmann had set out an employment offer for Mr Poole to succeed him as chief executive of Sterling on a salary of £ 250,000 and £ 125,000 towards a discounted executive house – the latter which didn’t appear on his declaration of interest in January 2019, which was made nearly two years after the initial equity positions had first been drawn up by Mr Dickmann.
Mr Poole insisted that the offers from Mr Dickmann, both equity and any future employment, were unrealistic and didn’t take them seriously, stressing that new companies would need to have been created in agreement with private sector backers.
He said: “I had no influence or ability to influence the behaviors of Mr Dickmann. I feel that I have been held responsible for the content of this work output, despite having no input into them or ability to influence them. Others at a far higher level in the organization also failed to control these charts. Had Swansea University acted reasonably then they would have offered me the protection I deserved from the scrutiny brought upon me due to these charts.
Both claimants alleged that the university’s registrar at the time, Andrew Rhodes, had a vendetta against them.
Mr Poole said: “During the disciplinary process I communicated my concerns regarding the malign intent of Andrew Rhodes, directed primarily at the dean, Professor Clement, but inevitably towards myself also.
“It is clear from the evidence presented during the employment tribunal that the final decision regarding my dismissal was in the balance.”
Summing up for the university James Laddie QC said that the criticism leveled at Mr Rhodes (who no longer works for the university) by the claimants had no basis and on joining the university in the spring of 2018 to the suspensions in November, had only met Prof Clement for a total time period of 30 minutes.
Having become aware of the equity positions Mr Laddie asked: “What is the new registrar to do in that situation? No doubt, humans being humans, there will be many senior officials of universities and other organizations who would do their best to keep things quiet, sweep them under the carpet, reach a politically convenient solution. It is absolutely to Mr Rhodes’ credit that he did the right thing, capital R, capital T. He instituted an investigation by an external third party, Allen & Overy, to establish whether or not there really was any evidence of wrongdoing. He personally was subjected to appalling personal abuse.
“In evidence to the disciplinary he describes the brick bats that have been hurled at him and the trolling that he suffered on social media … the point is by taking on such a well established figure Professor Clement and not being willing to sweep this under the carpet, the new registrar Mr Rhodes exposed himself enormously. The suggestion that he was motivated by jealousy, by personal hatred, is outrageous. It serves as nothing more than an unjustified distraction from the real evidence in this case. It is an indication of how desperate the claimants are that they have resorted to this allegation. ”
During cross-examination, Mr Laddie has asked if the claimants had believed that Mr Dickmann’s equity charts were unrealistic – for which around 30 were unearthed during the investigation – why hadn’t they insisted on them being amended as they were being widely shared with potential private sector investors.
In his closing submission he said: “Either the information on the presentations is false and Fujitsu, Siemens, Lloyds and HSBC, and all of the other great and good companies are being defrauded, or it is true; in other words it accurately reflects the expectations of the parties at the moment the presentations were being made and the declaration of interest has not been made. And it really doesn’t get more simple than that.
“It is an irresolvable problem at the heart of the claimants’ case. This is a sad state of affairs … but it is not through any unfairness or unreasonable action on the part of the university. They have themselves to blame. “
On Prof Clement he added: “He is a man for whom rules just don’t matter. And it may well be that he got away with ignoring the rules, being the big dog in the school of management, for many, many years. “
He concluded: “In this case my client, Swansea University, reasonably reached the conclusion that these two claimants were working for two masters. They were working for Swansea University and they were working for themselves. They had failed to declare it. It was gross It was a deliberate breach of the conflict of interest policy. These dismissals, were fair. “
Judge Phillips is expected to deliver a verdict tomorrow.