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Official at UN aviation agency signed off on $240K in contracts for his PhD supervisor at Concordia

ملفات اخبار العرب24-كندا: Internal documents obtained by CBC show concerns were raised about alleged ethical breaches by a senior director at the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency, in 2017. (Martin Thibault/Radio-Canada)

A high-level director at the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) awarded $240,000 worth of consulting contracts to his Concordia University doctoral supervisor while still his student, CBC News has learned.

ICAO is the United Nations body that sets standards for civil aviation around the world — a gateway for airlines, airports and government aviation agencies.

A confidential internal email obtained by CBC News alleges that James Wan, ICAO's deputy director of information management and administration, was in a conflict of interest and abused his office for personal gain. 

According to Wan himself, an investigation into those allegations was launched in September and is ongoing. However, another email obtained by CBC shows that the agency's ethics officer asked ICAO Secretary General Fang Liu to investigate two years ago, which Liu initially declined to do.

As CBC reported in February, Liu was criticized for failing to investigate Wan and four of his staff for an attempt to cover up their mishandling of a 2016 cyberattack — the largest computer security breach in ICAO's history. 

The timeline

Wan began his doctoral studies at Concordia's John Molson School of Business in September 2013. His PhD thesis, entitled Integrated United Nations Management — A United Nations Just-In-Time Approach, was approved in July 2017. 

Emails obtained by CBC allege James Wan, ICAO's deputy director of information management and general administration, was in a conflict of interest and abused his office for personal gain. (James Wan/Facebook)

A June 25, 2019, email from ICAO's chief of staff employment and administration, Kamini Balram, reveals that while he was still a PhD student, Wan signed off on ICAO contracts awarded to his academic supervisor, Raafat Saadé, the chair of the business school's department of supply chain and business technology management.

Citing a preliminary ethics assessment, Balram said Saadé had been working as a consultant for ICAO's information and communications technology department, reporting to Wan throughout the period that Wan was his doctoral student.

"Under normal circumstances, such conduct should incur summary dismissal," Balram wrote.

Asked by CBC about that alleged ethical breach, Wan responded in a lengthy written statement. He said on Sept. 11, 2019 —  almost two years after allegations of Wan's ethical misconduct were referred to ICAO's secretary general — the agency launched a formal investigation.

Lucrative contracts

Wan provided CBC with a copy of the report he wrote to ICAO's ethics office, rebutting the allegations against him.

It includes contract records for Saadé, whose expertise is in the management of information systems and technologies. 

While CBC cannot confirm whether the records are complete, they do show that Saadé had 10 separate contracts with ICAO between December 2010 and March 2019. In total, those contracts added up to $570,000. They include $240,000 in contracts awarded to Saadé while Wan was his doctoral student.

Wan wrote in his report that in 2011, all ICAO consultancy contracts were centralized under the information communication and technology department, which Wan oversees. He said it was his job to sign off on those contracts, whether or not he did the hiring.

Wan sat in on Saadé's interview for ICAO job

In the months before Wan's PhD thesis was approved in July 2017, Saadé applied for a full-time position at ICAO as chief of business technology and services — a position that also reported to Wan.

Wan does not dispute that, admitting in his report that while he did not recruit Saadé, the professor "was one of his consultants" at ICAO for more than six years and was "also a friend."  

Concordia Prof. Raafat Saadé was awarded $240,000 in contracts on which James Wan signed off, during the period that Wan was his doctoral student. (Concordia University)

Despite their close relationship, Wan remained involved in the interview process for the job Saadé was seeking.

In her email, the human resources chief, Balram, writes, "after ostensibly recusing himself from the preparation of the assessment and written tests, Mr. Wan became involved in the interview process. As such, he did not fully dissociate himself from the selection process."

Wan claimed in his report that he did recuse himself from the interviews, although he acknowledged he went over the job applications and sat in on the interviews with the top six candidates "as an observer."

Wan said he had told the recruitment department verbally that Saadé had worked for him as a consultant, to avoid any potential "ethical problem" — however, he said he wasn't aware that he was required to reveal his academic relationship with Saadé or that that could be seen as a personal conflict.

Wan said he never intended to hide that relationship, but he thought his continuing education was a personal matter.

"If there is any fault at my end," he said, it was because ICAO lacked a clear policy on relationships other than those involving family, as well as ethics procedures and awareness training.

ICAO Secretary General Fang Liu, left, seen here with ICAO Council president Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, initially declined to ask for an investigation into alleged ethical breaches by James Wan, a senior director at the agency. Wan says an investigation is now underway. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Liu, ICAO's secretary general, did ultimately abort the recruitment process and ordered the job be reposted.

Balram wrote that Liu made the right decision, but, she said, "appropriate action could have taken place much earlier in the recruitment process to either disqualify the candidate in question, remove Mr. Wan from the selection process and/or abort the selection process."

Saadé did not reply to CBC's request for an interview.

As of early 2019, he no longer works as a consultant at ICAO. 

Concordia had to be informed 

In the June 25, 2019, email obtained by CBC, which was sent to ICAO's secretary general, her assistant and the agency's ethics officer, Balram stressed it was important ICAO notify Concordia University immediately of Wan's apparent "abuse of office … for his personal gain" — even suggesting the university might wish to "reconsider the award of the PhD degree to Mr. Wan."

She alleged there had been a "gross violation" by four of six members of Wan's PhD examining committee "of Concordia University's pertinent academic requirements for thesis supervisors and graduate students."

James Wan acknowledges he signed ICAO consultancy contracts for Concordia Prof. Dennis Kira, pictured, one of his PhD examiners. However, Wan said he did not hire him nor was Kira under his management. (Concordia University)

In addition to Saadé, she questioned Wan's relationship with two other Concordia professors — Dennis Kira, from the department of supply chain and business technology management; and computer scientist Yuhong Yan — as well as a management professor from Australia's University of Wollongong, Michael Jones.  

Kira and Yan sat as internal examiners on Wan's PhD panel, and Jones was the external examiner. 

Balram claimed they all had contracts linked to Wan's office during his period of study,  but that is not substantiated by the information Wan provided CBC.

All three professors have had ICAO contracts at some point, but according to Wan, only Kira had a contract at the time that Wan studied at Concordia. Wan wrote that while he signed Kira's contract, he did not hire him, nor was Kira under his management. Jones's contract started three months after Wan completed his PhD.

Neither Kira nor Jones responded to CBC's request for comment.

CBC spoke with Yan. She confirmed what Wan wrote in his report to ICAO: that her contract with ICAO ended well before Wan started his doctoral studies at Concordia. She said she reported that to the university.

What the university's guidelines say

Concordia University does have strict guidelines for the supervision of PhD students — specifically, that relationships between committee members and students must remain academic. 

"Any personal relationships that alter or affect this academic relationship may constitute a conflict of interest (e.g., familial or intimate relationship, business relationship)," the university states in its Guidelines for the Supervision of PhD Students. 

"Whenever a conflict of interest arises, examining members should withdraw from the committee." 

Concordia University's guidelines for the supervision of PhD students states 'whenever a conflict of interest arises, examining members should withdraw from the committee.' (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

CBC has not been able to determine if ICAO actually did inform Concordia University of the alleged ethical breaches. The university is not saying. It issued the following statement:

"For reasons of confidentiality and privacy, including privacy legislation, Concordia cannot discuss information pertaining to our current or former faculty, staff or students. Generally speaking, with regards to our process, any allegations of misconduct brought to our attention are investigated thoroughly. Following investigation, the necessary steps and actions are taken commensurate with the findings."

Wan's contract renewed indefinitely

As far as Wan goes, although he has told CBC that an investigation of his alleged ethical breaches is now underway, a recent document obtained by CBC, dated Sept. 25, 2019, shows the senior administrator has been renewed in his current job, with an unlimited term.

In his statement to CBC, Wan said he plans to leave ICAO within the year, as part of his career plan.

Asked for ICAO's response to the allegations against Wan, chief of communications Anthony Philbin said in a written statement that the organization would not disclose information on "any allegations made against individuals or on an ongoing investigation." 

"ICAO has procedures in place to address staff conduct should someone be found to be in breach of their obligations," Philbin said.

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