Awema: Finance chief 'should have blown whistle sooner'

A finance director suspended from a race relations charity says he should have blown the whistle sooner about financial mismanagement claims.

Saquib Zia said he raised concerns about the All Wales Ethnic Minority Association (Awema) with its board members.

Public funding to Awema ended after a Welsh government report found "significant and fundamental failures".

Its trustees are to meet later to consider how to wind up its affairs.

Awema chair Dr Rita Austin said she would manage its "orderly exit".

The Charity Commission has opened a statutory inquiry while police are also examining the evidence in the report.

'Lack of oversight'

The investigation for the Welsh government and the Big Lottery Fund follows months of allegations of financial mismanagement and bullying at Swansea-based Awema.

Since concerns were originally raised about financial practices and the management of projects in Awema, the organisation went on to secure funding commitments for projects worth a total of well over £8m, although £3m of the £5m of Welsh European Funding Office (Wefo) funding which formed part of that had not yet actually been paid to it.

The report published on Thursday said there was a "complete lack of oversight of the financial processes and controls" by Awema chief executive Naz Malik.

It said the charity's funds were used to pay for gym memberships and sports tickets, and a parking fine for Mr Malik.

It also noted a "clear conflict of interest" in that one of the charity's directors reporting to Mr Malik was his daughter Tegwen.

Suspended finance director Mr Zia told BBC Radio Wales he should have raised issues sooner.

"I do apologise," he said. "I think on my part I should have probably done (blown the whistle) it a lot earlier, but it's not that I never raised this issue."

Mr Zia, who joined Awema in 2005, said he wrote to the Welsh government and the Welsh European Funding Office about his concerns last December.

But he questioned whether he could have blown the whistle earlier on Awema's alleged financial irregularities.

"The expenses and all the information we're talking about (happened in) the last 15 to 18-month period," he said.

Mr Zia also supported allegations of staff bullying at Awema, and said it was a hostile environment for junior staff members.

"It was like a school environment and you were told what you can and can't do," he added.

"I raised the issues so many times in the management team meetings, but they chose to ignore that advice and junior staff were treated, I would say, in an inhumane way on a regular basis."

An earlier report, commissioned by the charity's trustees, said Mr Malik used funds inappropriately and saw his salary increased without approval from the board.

Finance Minister Jane Hutt said the government had taken "decisive action" by terminating public funding for Awema in the wake of the latest report.

The organisation's chair, Dr Rita Austin, has fiercely defended Awema in the wake of the allegations.

But in a statement on Awema's website she said the Welsh government had produced a "substantial and serious" report which needed to be "properly absorbed" by trustees.

With funding now terminated, she said the board would consider their obligations to Awema's project partners and staff at meetings on Friday and next week.

"All of us who continue to serve on the board at Awema - myself as chair, continuing trustees and CEO (Mr Malik) - will carry out our responsibility to manage an orderly exit for the only minority ethnic development organisation which works across Wales," said Dr Austin.

"We are opening discussions with officials to this effect."

Political links

Following the report, the Wales Audit Office will carry out what Ms Hutt called a "thorough and independent review" into the history of funding to the charity.

First Minister Carwyn Jones has said his administration has "nothing to hide" over Awema, but opposition politicians have asked why ministers failed to act on previous warnings in 2004 and 2007, noting that Mr Malik and his daughter were Labour party members.

Conservative opposition leader Andrew RT Davies condemned "a fiasco that should have been prevented", adding that public funding for Awema had been ended "eight years too late".

"The buck stops firmly with the government," he said.

"Ministers need to look long and hard at their actions over the last eight years and consider whether they have properly fulfilled their duties."

Image caption A Plaid Cymru AM said the report showed a 'shocking picture of financial disarray at the charity'

Lib Dem AM Peter Black said: "The Labour government has stood by as millions of pounds of taxpayers money is wasted by a charity that has played fast and loose with public money.

"While further investigation by the Charity Commission and the Wales Audit Office is welcome, it is clear that the spotlight must now be shone also onto the links between government ministers, a charity riddled with financial malpractice and the Labour party."

Speaking for Plaid Cymru, AM Bethan Jenkins welcomed a pledge to ensure Awema-backed projects would continue, but said ministers had to be brought to account.

"This report paints a truly shocking picture of financial disarray at the charity - and one which the Welsh government, right up to ministerial level, was warned about," she said.

"If responsibility for what has happened reaches that far, there will need to be action."

Mr Malik, who along with his daughter has been suspended by Welsh Labour, said he would co-operate with all the relevant authorities, including the Welsh government, Auditor General, the charity commission and the police if necessary.

But he feels the media is not the most appropriate platform upon which to dispute any of Mr Zia's claims and will make his views public when all the relevant authorities have completed their investigations.

Meanwhile, Nick Tregoning, vice-chair of Swansea Bay Race Equality Council, suggested that multiple organisations should have responsibility for delivering Welsh government funding, instead of relying on one group.

He said: "That's flawed, it's shown to be flawed by this report and it's clearly been flawed for a very considerable period of time."

Mr Tregoning added: "It (the report) demonstrates an organisation which is out of control and has been out of control since the early part of 2003 and 2004."

He said his organisation did not received funding from Awema, but those who did needed to be "looked after properly".

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