Liberal cabinet minister Amrik Virk linked to Kwantlen compensation scandal

Directors at Kwantlen Polytechnic University hoped to use funds intended for student bursaries and awards to pay the school’s president $100,000 more than the salary he was allowed under provincial law, emails obtained by The Province show.

The idea was discussed by several members of KPU’s board of governors — including Amrik Virk, who was vice-chair of the board before becoming B.C.’s minister of advanced education — according to a 2011 email by board chair Gordon Schoberg to the university secretary.

The idea appears to have been rejected after the president of the B.C. Association of Institutes and Universities (BCAIU) offered an opinion that using money from the Kwantlen Foundation to get around a salary cap would, if discovered, result in an “extremely negative reaction” from government.

On Thursday at the B.C. Legislature, Opposition MLAs tried to connect Virk to the KPU executive compensation scandal during Question Period, suggesting that as vice-chair he should have known what was happening. Virk responded by saying the matter is being investigated by the Public Sector Employers’ Council (PSEC) Secretariat.

PSEC oversees compensation plans for executive employees at public institutions to ensure they fall under a government-mandated salary cap.

Advanced education critic David Eby tabled two emails Thursday in the Legislature that appear to show KPU executives discussing the practice of hiding wages above the cap by characterizing them as other expenses.

In one, KPU human resources manager Ellen Hill explains to an unknown recipient that she omitted references to former vice-president Anne Lavack’s annual research allowance and administrative leave in her employment contract, because “her compensation level is such that it requires contract disclosure” to PSEC.

The email obtained by The Province is dated Nov. 8, 2011, when KPU was recruiting for a new president. In it, vice-president of finance Gordon Lee asked Ruth Wittenberg, president of the BCAIU, for an opinion on how the government might react to an idea for the “new president to be compensated up to the PSEC limit by the university and a supplementary amount ($100,000) by the Kwantlen Polytechnic University Foundation.”

The foundation’s priority, according to its website, is to support students with scholarships, bursaries and awards.

Wittenberg’s negative response appeared to sink the idea. Board chair Schoberg asked the university secretary to forward Wittenberg’s “sobering” opinion to “Amrik and Scott, since we spoke about this last Friday.”

Earlier this month, Eby questioned Virk about $100,000 in “payments to senior (KPU) administrators by recording them in their financial reports as payments to suppliers of goods and services.

KPU’s financial report for the year ending March 31, 2013, lists remuneration and expenses for new president Alan Davis totalling $161,773, but also includes a separate entry indicating he was paid $50,000 as a “supplier of goods and services.”

KPU issued a statement on behalf of the university and its board of governors saying it “welcomes” the PSEC review and is “co-operating fully.”

Asked for comment by The Province, Virk provided an emailed statement saying “government takes the matter of executive compensation very seriously … The (PSEC) review is currently underway and is looking at the payments themselves, the public disclosure of those payments, and whether the compensation was consistent with government’s compensation guidelines.”

Eby said the review should be passed to the Auditor General.

“I think there are employees at Kwantlen who want to come forward… but they’re not going to be comfortable coming forward to a (PSEC) investigator who reports to Mr. Virk’s colleague the minister of finance.”

– From the Vancouver Province. Read more Province stories HERE.

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