Former employee suspected of fraud

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Police are investigating a former Christchurch Polytechnic Students' Association staff member for suspected fraud.

The association, which has delayed filing its 2007 annual return to the Companies Office, has lost three paid staff members and five elected student representatives this year.

Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Johnson yesterday confirmed police received a complaint from the association in March about a former staff member.

The Press understands the woman under investigation is former association manager Helen Lenihan.

Johnson could not confirm how much money was involved.

"It's an active investigation by the fraud squad and no other people are being sought," he said.


Attempts to contact Lenihan were unsuccessful yesterday.

Interim co-president Tracey Cox said the president, vice-president and three others had left the executive for various reasons. This left seven members, none of whom had been on the executive before.

"All the people left are new. We came on board in March," she said.

"With the staff turnover, we have had problems here. I believe we are working as a team and getting through things and, yes, there have been challenges, but a lot have been overcome."

As an incorporated society, the association must file annual returns with the Companies Office. However, the office had given the association an extension for its 2007 return.

Cox said the 2007 return was still being finalised and she could not comment on whether all the students' money was accounted for in that year.


Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology chief executive Neil Barns said the association's elected representatives were clearly struggling.

"It would be fair to say that we are concerned that they get through this period of change, particularly for the students, because they provide quite a lot of services to students," he said.

He hoped next month's elections would return some stability to the association.

"There are clearly some tensions going on with the organisation, and the fact they changed presidents is of concern to us," Barns said. Acting presidents were taking the roles, but they had not been there very long, he said.

New Zealand Union of Students' Associations co-president Paul Falloon said 12 of the country's 20 polytechnics had students' associations and seven were members of his organisation. The Christchurch association was not a member.

A former body governing many polytechnic associations, the Aotearoa Tertiary Students' Association, went under in 2005, when some members withheld fees amid claims of mismanagement and overspending.

Falloon said generally there were enough checks and balances on how associations spent their money.

"Things could always be better. There are unique challenges associations face, and that polytechs face, and perhaps some may take more time to find out about them," he said.

National Party tertiary education spokesman Paul Hutchison said students should be able to decide for themselves whether they wanted compulsory membership of student associations.

"I'm aware there are concerns by some that say there isn't strong accountability for the money they get," he said.

"All the time, I hear murmurings of there being inappropriate usage of student levies by the unions."

It was important that accounts were "absolutely transparent" to show that each student dollar was being spent well on students, he said.

ACT MP Heather Roy introduced a private member's bill into the ballot in late 2006 that would make joining student associations voluntary.

"There seems to be very little accountability and transparency. At the end of the day, students have to pay that fee, and many of them feel they get very little in return," she said.

"It seems executives often treat this money as their own, rather than money collected from students to be distributed on their behalf."

A Victoria University student lobby group called for an end to compulsory membership of its students' association last year after an officer racked up nearly $6000 in calls to a psychic line.

The Press