Laurentian University withholding documents for financial audit, Ontario auditor general says

WATCH ABOVE: (April 13) In a move to battle bankruptcy, Laurentian University has eliminated dozens of professors and programs. Eric Sorensen explains how the budget cuts deal a major blow to academia in Ontario.

Laurentian University is refusing to provide documents for an audit into its finances, prompting Ontario’s auditor general to go to court to request the information.

Bonnie Lysyk gave an update Wednesday on her audit of the insolvent school in Sudbury, Ont., that filed for creditor protection this year amid financial challenges.

The probe into the publicly-funded university’s governance, operations and financial decisions was launched in the spring, but the auditor said the university has refused to provide unfettered and timely access to information.

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“Unfortunately, our office has been denied access by Laurentian to information we consider absolutely necessary for the conduct of our audit work,” Lysyk’s report said. “Such a pervasive restriction of our audit work is unprecedented.”

Lysyk said Laurentian has refused to share information deemed privileged by its legal counsel, and also won’t share non-privileged information because it would take too long to vet it.

Protocols put in place by the university have discouraged staff from speaking freely or sharing information and have “created a culture of fear surrounding interactions with our office,” Lysyk’s update said.

Lysyk filed an application in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in September asking a judge to declare the auditor general’s legislated right to privileged information and documents — the first time her office has had to take that step, she told reporters on Wednesday.

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“I filed the application to clarify the definition of ‘privileged,”’ she said. “It became obvious that even our access to prove non-privileged information was being impacted, as well as our conversations with people.”

Some material has started to flow in, following letters from a government committee on public accounts, but Lysyk’s update on the probe said it’s unclear if all documents will be turned over.

The Ministry of Colleges and Universities has also “strongly encouraged” Laurentian to cooperate with the special audit, Lysyk’s report said.

Laurentian University said in a statement that it has been cooperating with the audit, and has “authorized and encouraged all staff to participate in interviews.” The emailed statement said Lysyk has been granted access to the university’s enrolment system, financial database and non-privileged documents, with a court hearing on the matter of access to privileged documents scheduled for next week.

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In a written Sept. 30 statement published on the university’s website, Laurentian president Robert Hache said the university would wait for the ruling on whether privileged information between lawyers and clients must be shared.

“We remain committed to becoming a fully restructured, financially viable, and renewed Laurentian University,” Hache said.

Dozens of academic programs and some varsity sports teams have been cut this year as the northern university contends with insolvency.

Laurentian became the first publicly-funded university to file for creditor protection in February. Hache announced the news saying the university became insolvent after a decade of financial strain.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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