‘I just did what any accountant would do’
Up until the summer holidays, bachelor student Jasper Been’s life consisted of nothing but annual accounts, shareholders, time sheets, and inspection reports. He would spend days on end in student party DAG’s little office at the Academy building, reading, highlighting, and writing.
If anyone came in without announcing themselves, he would hastily shut his laptop. No one was allowed to know what he was doing until he had completed his investigation.
Last week, the rest of the world was made privy to what Jasper Been had been working on so feverishly: figuring out the financing for the planned RUG campus in Yantai. Through a series of bookkeeping tricks, the university had turned public funds into private funds, and then used those funds to pay for the Yantai preparations, according to Been.
The minister for education had expressly forbidden the university from using tax money for the campus, and the RUG has always maintained that they weren’t doing that.
But Been, who served as a DAG representative on the university council from September 2017 until August 2019, wasn’t buying it. It all started with a request for documents through the Government Information (Public Access) Act in the fall of 2017.
‘Initially DAG wanted to make as much information on Yantai public as possible, just to prevent the plan from going through’, says Been. ‘So I requested absolutely everything there was. All the agreements that had been reached, and who’d they’d been made with. Who had travelled to China, and when. And everything the RUG had spent on preparations.’
After the deadline
Been wasn’t given access to the documents until two months after the deadline for access had passed. In the meantime, his fellow council members repeatedly asked the Personnel faction for the time sheets of RUG personnel working on the Yantai project; they suspected people were working more hours than they said they were. But they didn’t receive anything they asked for. ‘Sure, they kept telling us that they would get it to us. But they never did.’
Been knew something suspicious was going on when he saw how much money had been spent on preparations and how much had been budgeted. ‘More than three million altogether, but that couldn’t be right. The RUG didn’t even have three million euros in private funds.’
This spurred him to dig deeper. He requested more information from the schools inspectorate, which was tasked with checking the Yantai expenses. Along with his fellow council members, he started asking RUG employees for their time sheets and whether they were accurate.
He also requested more information from the RUG itself. He was after a specific transaction that he’d noticed when going over the annual accounts. ‘The sale of UOCG Market BV to the RUG Houdstermaatschappij. They were selling a company to themselves. That struck me as weird.’
It takes a good eye to spot something like that. ‘I study at the faculty of economics, so that probably helped’, Been says. ‘I just did what any accountant would do. There is a legal side to the story as well, such as the question of whether a university should even have private funds. But I just looked at the material from an accounting viewpoint and searched for things that didn’t make sense.’
Been had to be determined. The university was not happy with his line of questioning. ‘They just refused to respond. They let the deadlines to provide me with information lapse. Or they would send us some documents, but not everything we asked for. They were trying to get rid of us. Trying to make us stop asking for information.’
Been was never discouraged, however. ‘Every single document I read contained another clue. And in politics, nothing is ever personal. It’s all just tactics.’ After almost a year of investigating, he had gathered sufficient evidence. The way the RUG moved companies around and the nearly one hundred RUG employees who acknowledged that their time sheets were inaccurate confirmed what he had suspected all along.
So what’s next? ‘I still have to go over the investigation, but if it’s true that the RUG turned public funds into private funds, they will have to pay that money back’, education minister Van Engelshoven has said.
For now, Been will sit back and wait to see what happens. And in the meantime, he’ll go back to attending his economics classes.