Evidence has emerged that the University of Limerick misled the Department of Education and the Comptroller and Auditor General during an inquiry into its payments of unauthorised and excessive severance packages to senior managers.

The unauthorised severance payments were originally spotted by the C&AG as part of a special report in the management of severance payments in the public sector.

The revelations are included in the RTÉ Investigates - Universities Unchallenged programme, which was broadcast tonight on RTÉ One.

The programme examines the lack of oversight and accountability in publicly funded universities and colleges in Ireland and reveals examples of poor corporate governance and the waste of taxpayers' money.

The programme reveals how, when questioned about the severance payments a senior manager in University of Limerick told the department and the C&AG the payments were extremely beneficial as they were made to two individuals where employment relationships had broken down and, based on legal advice, it avoided the cost of potential dismissal.

Following an investigation by the RTÉ Investigations Unit, the university conceded this was not the case. 

There had been no breakdown in relations and instead it had arranged separate six-figure consultancy arrangements to keep both managers at the university for a further three years.

The payments were made to the university's former financial controller John Fox and its former director of lifelong learning, Dermot Coughlan.

When contacted by the RTÉ Investigations Unit both men rejected in the strongest possible terms the claims they had been the subject of any disciplinary action or that employment relations had broken down and pointed to the fact that they were given consultancy contracts for a further three years.

UL subsequently confirmed it had wanted to retain the men's services.

A severance package of €231,506 was paid to Mr Fox, which was double the rate that would have applied under the public sector benchmark.

A severance package of €220,332 was paid to Mr Coughlan, which was a third more than the public sector benchmark.

In both cases, in addition to the severance payments, they went on to receive nearly identical amounts as part of three-year consultancy contracts that kept them working at the university.

The disclosure that the university had provided misleading information about the severance payments to the department and the C&AG will now form part of an independent inquiry announced by Minister for Education Richard Bruton.

The inquiry will be headed up by the former president of the Institute of Technology Sligo, Professor Richard Thorn.

After reviewing the evidence presented in the programme, members of the Public Accounts Committee have indicated that they are to seek legal advice on their powers of dealing with potentially misleading evidence given to it by the university.

PAC chairman Seán Fleming, said: "The Public Accounts Committee will be taking legal advice to see how strong our powers are in relation to dealing with these matters and in particular this idea that people can come and not provide full information when they are asked questions. The public won't tolerate that. The Oireachtas won't tolerate that. And the Public Accounts Committee won't tolerate that."

The committee had questioned the payments at its meeting with UL representatives in March.

The RTÉ Investigates programme also discovered breaches of procurement and ethics laws at the college, including an instance where in excess of €100,000 worth of pens, watches and silver medallions were purchased from a jewellery shop belonging to a member of its own Governing Authority, without a proper tender or a declaration of interest.

In correspondence with the RTÉ Investigations Unit, the University of Limerick said it had initiated a broad review of its senior management structure and had secured sanction to begin recruiting a number of new senior roles.

It said its new president has also initiated reviews of its corporate governance systems.