Robbing the RUG
RUG manager Hans G., suspected of fraud, stayed in hotels at the expense of contractors, put his son and daughter-in-law on a company’s payroll, was given a car by a service company and fuelled his car and bought groceries that he made the RUG pay for. He also had his house renovated to the tune of thousands of euros on the university’s dime.
Hans surrounds himself with people who are comfortable working off the books. Technicians he likes get permanent contracts at the RUG. When a friendly business owner gets too greedy, however, the fraud is discovered by the tax dithorities.
Hans G. is not the only one responsible for the fraud. Over the years, at least eight university employees have profited from the deals that Hans struck with friendly service companies. They had houses renovated at the university’s expense or enjoyed trips and dinners on him.
Suspicions of fraud have existed for years. But at the RUG, no one sounds the alarm: people are afraid of losing their jobs, or they cannot find any hard evidence.
One business owner warned colleagues of Hans of the fraud via emails, phone calls, and registered letters. He was laughed at, lost his assignments at the RUG and went bankrupt.
Four RUG employees have been suspended as a result of the internal investigation. Connections with three installation companies have been severed, and many technicians are out of a job. The workers are angry: ‘They get up to all sorts of things at the university. And now they’re trying to sweep it under the rug.’
People have been cooking the books at the university’s building department. Hans made his career in that world, and by making use of changes in management and adopting a domineering attitude, he gains more and more power. Under his leadership, the fraud grows and grows.
Reading time: 18 minutes (3,206 woorden)
University director Sibrand Poppema is all smiles. It is 15 May, 2014, and his beloved RUG is celebrating its 400th anniversary. No expense has been spared for the celebrations. The entrance of the Academy building, the university’s stately city centre headquarters, has been re-painted, and a large red banner hangs from the balcony. A lengthy red carpet has been laid out for the guest of honour, the king.
Poppema, his beard neatly trimmed, is full of excitement. The king emerges from his black Audi, straightens his jacket and steps onto the deep red carpet, waving to the crowd. Poppema and Willem-Alexander meet halfway, shaking hands. What Poppema is unaware of in that moment is that his university is being cheated by his employees, and has been for years. The swindle includes, among other things, the red carpet he is now standing on with the king.
The primary suspect in the fraud case is his chief maintenance officer, Hans G. from Harkstede. He is a large man with a protruding lower lip who has been caring for the university’s buildings for 33 years. In the years working for the RUG, he asks installation and construction companies to give him money on the side or to do him favours in exchange for maintenance contracts at the university.
Hans is not only responsible for the buildings in Groningen, but he also regularly travels to the Royal Institute in Rome. The neo-renaissance style building that houses this research centre is located at the Via Omero, on the outskirts of the Roman city park.
The stately building is badly in need of renovating. It already has a new roof, and the main library and the guest quarters have been dealt with. In February of 2013, Hans and a delegation of technicians and RUG employees have flown over from Groningen to lay network cables. It is hard work, but Hans takes good care of his people.
He invites them all over to the luxurious hotel where he and his loyal secretary Margreet are staying. Tonight, they will be dining on something better than a mushy pizza from a cardboard box after a long day of sweating, drilling, and cable-laying in the dusty and smelly space. The luxurious city-centre hotel’s opulence is a breath of fresh air. Marble walls, paintings of voluptuous women, a long dining table. Nobody is worried about how much the stay costs. It has been taken care of. The permanent contractor likes to spoil his clients, as long as the jobs from the Groningen university do not dry up.
The walls at the Roman research centre are so thick that the workers set up the drills to do all the work while they go get coffee. During these coffee breaks, the RUG’s network managers often talk about what is going on. How on earth is Hans staying at such an expensive hotel, and how is he declaring these costs at the university? And what do he and his secretary even do all day? Another thing: why is Hans having the Postma firm, one of his favourite service companies, drive from Peizermade to Rome in a van full of cables? Is there not a local company that could do the job for less money?
Jobs off the books
Hans G. prefers to surround himself with people he knows well – people he can count on, who he knows are fine with a job off the books here and there.
Hans has no trouble getting jobs like that. If he needs a trailer for his fishing gear, he goes to a plumbing company: ‘Get me a trailer and I’ll get you jobs at the RUG’, he tells the business owner. ‘I’ll fax you a receipt that says you worked on a university building. You can fill out the amount and the RUG will pay you the money.’
Hans works a lot with his good friend Marinus P., who owns engineering firm Postma. Hans can get his friend work at the RUG. Other business owners are set aside; the majority of the maintenance jobs go to Postma from now on. From that point forward, pipes, boilers, and air treatment installations are installed and maintained by P.’s engineering firm.
Marinus and his son Raimo are well-known at the university. They can be found on campus on any given day. The work they do is good, but not all the work that the RUG gets billed for is actually being done. In several cases, more hours are recorded than actually are worked. P. gives Hans a portion of the money he receives from the university.
Together with Hans, Marinus P. comes up with a trick to make money off the RUG: renting materials that belong to the RUG back to the RUG. Several basements around campus hold display signs, tables, and podia which are used by employees during events, such as the lecturer of the year election or the Aletta Jacobs prize.
Marinus takes them all to Peizermade, including the red carpet. He stores them in his own warehouse and creates a separate company: Display Noord. Anyone organising an event has to rent the university’s materials through Postma, whereas before they could simply be retrieved from RUG storage. This includes the red carpet that is now being used for the 400th anniversary. It has to be rented from Postma for 70 euros, even though it actually belongs to the university itself.
Hans regularly works with business owners who are fine with creative bookkeeping like Jan J., director of the installation company Mennes & Jager. Twelve of his technicians have had a permanent contract at the RUG for years under Hans’ watchful eye. Jan and Hans come up with several creative constructions at the offices of Mennes & Jager at the Rigaweg in Groningen.
Together with Hans, Marinus P. comes up with a trick to make money off the RUG: renting the RUG’s own materials back to the RUG
For instance, Hans gets his son Michiel and his Polish daughter-in-law Kasia put on the payroll of Jan’s company. And Jan does not have to pay a dime. The costs are charged to the university. For appearances’ sake, the two get assigned work, but in reality, they do not do much.
Kasia is asked to write a manual for an administrative programme. Michiel is tasked with building inspection, but that rarely happens. The employment is an illusion. But the pair receives 90,000 euros a year for it. The permanent contract is beneficial, because they are hoping to buy a house.
A technician who works for Mennes & Jager regularly visits Hans’ house in Harkstede to fix things there. Part of the materials are paid for by the RUG. And Hans refuels his car and gets groceries using the service company’s bank card. Hans then inputs the amounts into an Excel file and Jan charges the total amount in a credible-looking invoice to the university. Cartons of milk and loaves of bread are transmogrified, so to speak, into fluorescent tubes and switch boxes. That invoice, too, is added to the RUG pile.
Over the years, the relationship between Hans and Jan worsens. Perhaps it is Jan’s lax attitude that is troubling their affairs. Jan gives Hans a yellow Mini Cooper, but the administration is sloppy, even though Jan had promised to take care of it. The two argue. It was about that time that Jan failed to fill out assignment slips, putting Kasia and Michiel’s salary at risk.
Hans refuses to put up with it and goes to the offices at the Rigaweg. He needs to talk to Jan, he growls to a Mennes & Jager employee. But Jan is not there, yet again. Where is he? No one at the installation company actually knows. He might be in Germany or Ukraine, where he does business as well. Hans tells the employee that if Jan does not get his act together, he can kiss his work at the RUG goodbye.
Breathing down his neck
Jan is a man looking over his shoulder. He is eluding the tax authorities by setting up dummy companies, ushering through changes in management, and by registering his company at addresses where there are only empty garages. Stocks and inventories are moved as well. He thoughtlessly uses the parent company’s money to set up projects. Nine out of ten of his business ideas fail. One creditor is owed approximately two million euros by the business owner.
Jan can feel not just Hans breathing down his neck. Bailiffs regularly come by his properties. The blue tax envelopes pile up under the mailboxes. Due to Mennes & Jager’s increasing debts, it is getting increasingly difficult to pay the employees.
After months of not being paid, the accountants are sick of it and file for bankruptcy. This is the death knell for Jan J. and his web of companies. Talking to Mennes & Jager’s former employees, the trustee discovers that a civil servant at the university asked for favours in return for the assignments. That is when the ball really gets rolling. The trustee tips off the tax authorities. The tax authorities bring in the Fiscal Intelligence and Investigative Services (FIOD). Jan J. legs it and is not to be found for a long time.
25 January 2016, 6 a.m. It is still dark out. Two armed men in blue coats wait impatiently at the door to one of Mennes & Jager’s accountant. They show their IDs: FIOD. He has come with them. This is part of a coordinated campaign in which eight people, all suspects in the fraud case surrounding Hans G., are arrested in one fell swoop. In addition to Hans, his son Michiel and daughter-in-law Kasia, the accountants at Mennes & Jager, and three employees at other installation companies are arrested.
The FIOD goes through Hans’ house with a fine-tooth comb. His boat is seized, the administration is boxed up and 11,000 euros in cash – which he had lying around the house – is taken.
The Groningen Academy building is shocked. The news that the head of the maintenance department has been arrested leaves the employees bewildered. The corridors are buzzing. How could something like this happen at an institute as renowned as the university? Hans, of all people, who has always been available day and night. And he was only two months away from retirement.
At first, the RUG employees are very surprised, but after a few days, they start telling stories. Colleagues who regularly deal with him suddenly know all about everyone around Hans being corrupt.
Outside the university, people do sound the alarm
Over the years, at least eight university employees profited from the deals that Hans struck with friendly service companies. Need a new gutter for your roof? Hans will take care of it. A 20,000 euro bathroom renovation is no problem. A permanent contract as a maintenance technician at the RUG? You got it. This is how he keeps the people around him happy. There is almost no supervision from higher ups. And the service companies are satisfied with the work as well.
Hans turns out to be a man of two faces: friendly and jovial to people close to him, but domineering and intimidating as well. He runs a tight ship and brooks no argument. Suspicions that Hans was hinky have been around for years, but RUG employees agree that he played the game well. His colleagues were never quite able to put their finger on it. A few credible fake receipts are easily hidden in a pile of projects worth millions. Sure, they would see the same companies and technicians on a regular basis, but that was just convenient. They know the buildings and the people, know where all the light switches are. For the people in the office, it just means they will not have to keep repeating the same instructions. Surely there is nothing wrong with that?
Within the walls of the university, people have been keeping mum for years. A lot of immediate colleagues say nothing because they are involved in the scams. Others are afraid of the domineering Hans G. or fear losing their jobs if they do not manage to produce hard evidence.
Outside the university, people do sound the alarm. One contractor from Groningen refuses to be bullied by Hans and his immediate colleagues.
Hans organises a fishing trip for business owners, technicians, and RUG employees. He expects the business owners to foot the bill, threatening to skip them for jobs if they do not. The contractor can overlook this slightly larger bill. But a large invoice of 2,600 guilders – for a dinner with business owners and RUG pensioners – he finds tough to swallow.
The business owner sounds the alarm. He sends emails and registered letters, detailing the goings-on to one of Hans’ colleagues, and calls his supervisors multiple times. He never gets a response to any of his letters and Hans’ colleagues tell him to not make such a big deal about it.
Resentful, he talks to Hans, in front of his secretary Margreet. He bangs his fist on the table and says: ‘I won’t be a party to this anymore.’ The answer is short and clear: ‘Fine, but that means I can’t use you anymore.’ In other words: our business relationship is over.
The business owner is vilified and laughed at by Hans’ colleagues and the technicians who do play the game. The installation world is a small one, and people talk. The reach of Hans’ tentacles is long. The business owner is also unable to get work outside the RUG. ‘They assassinated my character’, says the man who, even five years after his bankruptcy, remains upset.
Consequences for companies now
In the meantime, other companies are also going without RUG assignments. The seconded employees have not been asked back to the university since the fraud was discovered. The partnerships are terminated because the companies did not conduct themselves ‘in accordance with regulations’. Handymen who worked at the university for 20 years are furious. ‘Just because other people were lining their pockets, we’re stuck at home. There are dozens of families involved. We always did what the RUG asked of us, no matter what it was’, says one installation company’s technician who would like to remain anonymous.
People he worked with for years suddenly want nothing to do with him. ‘They only want to save their own skins.’ According to the dumped technicians, the university is trying to shift the blame. ‘They get up to so many things over there. And now they’re trying to sweep it under the rug.’
People at Hans G.’s department are unhappy as well. Now that the familiar technicians have gone and every job is closely examined, the work has become time-consuming. And the Cofely and Strukton technicians who are taking over the work are not familiar with the buildings. ‘You have to explain everything to them, which doesn’t make our jobs any more fun’, say the people at the services department. Moreover, everyone is distracted by the investigation and the interrogations from the Hoffmann company investigators, but they are not allowed to talk about it. The RUG swore them to secrecy the moment the news of the arrests came out.
The university brought in Hoffman investigation bureau to inspect the organisation and set up an anonymous hotline. In the meantime, four employees have been suspended. This includes a manager at the department, a telecommunications staffer, and a man who worked at the financial administrative department. Contact with one self-employed person has also been terminated.
One of the handymen sums up working for Hans G. at the university: ‘You can succeed at the university if you’re crooked, doing god forbidden things.’
How did it ever come to this? Former employees say Hans G. is not the main cause. For a long time, they, business owners, and RUG employees have been calling attention to the culture of freedom and too little monitoring. But the scale of the fraud grew after Hans became the head of the maintenance department. They say that people in the building department have been cooking the books since the seventies.
One business owner remembers how his father, who started the family business, was stressed out because a manager in the RUG’s telecommunications department would only work with him if he got him a car radio with a cassette player. Two employees remember how, 23 years ago, contractors’ vans would drive up to the back to the building to hand over materials to the people at the building department. That is just how it goes in the construction business: no one cares, say RUG employees.
Hans has millions of euros at his disposal and has complete control over which companies the universities works with
Hans made his career in that world. In the early eighties, he gets a job as a mechanic at the RUG and learns the business from an old hand. The university’s building departments are divided into four different business groups located in the city centre, Zernike, and in Haren. Four little kingdoms, each in charge of its own budget.
Hans climbs the ladder under the auspices of Jan Fokkema, who manages to get his then daughter-in-law – Hans’ future secretary – a job at the university.
Hans proves himself as a technical installation inspector and manages to gain more and more control with his domineering attitude. When Fokkema is forced to leave the university after a heart attack, Hans increasingly takes control. He claims all of the assignments and manages to become department head. And that is the turning point, say his former colleagues.
In 2001, the four kingdoms are merged by the university into one large department: the services department. A lot of knowledge is lost due to changes in management and people increasingly defer to Hans and his expertise. ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’, says one former employee.
Hans has millions of euros at his disposal and has complete control over which companies the universities works with. At the same time, he keeps everyone around him happy by playing Santa Claus. He organises fishing trips and dinners for business owners and pensioners, has employees’ houses renovated. Anything you could ask for, he would get it for you.
Hans ensures that his appearance does not betray the fact that he is funnelling away hundreds of thousands of euros. He wears shabby clothes to work, does not drive a fancy car, and his house is not particularly luxurious, either.
University president Sibrand Poppema is not able to comment due to the ongoing investigations. Hoffmann is expected to have a report in a few weeks.
Earlier, Poppema said the whole business astounded him. He asked how it was possible that no one in the university came to him to tell him about the fraud. But he is also left scratching his own head: surely he also saw Postma’s vans around all the time? Why did he not think that was suspicious? How is it possible that no one at the financial department noticed anything?
By now, he is familiar with the story that former employees were involved in the fraud. But he feels it is no use pursuing that lead. You cannot fire pensioners and there is no way to get the money back. Moreover, it will take a lot of time to analyse all the financial information from the past 40 years. Poppema does not think it is worth it: ‘I did hear that some former employees might be involved. But should we be going after people from the past? We’re going to let sleeping dogs lie.’
The Universiteitskrant and the Dagblad van het Noorden collaborated on an investigation into the fraud case at the RUG. To write this article, the reporters spoke to 43 people. Seven business owners, sixteen RUG employees, eleven former RUG employees, lawyers, and employees at the Public Prosecution Office. Nobody wants to be named in this article; they are afraid to lose their jobs, lose assignments at the university, or they are loyal to their former colleagues. This article is based on their statements.