MYSTERY continues to surround who signed off payments from Firstsite worth more than £100,000 to an HR firm with links to two of the gallery's trustees.

The chairman of Firstsite’s board of trustees has resigned amid ongoing questions about his links to Friary West Limited, which the gallery has paid for work. 

Dr Noorzaman Rashid has left the Lewis Gardens gallery’s leadership team with immediate effect despite strongly claiming he never received any financial reward from HR company Friary West Limited.

Two other board members - Robert Surman, a trustee since September 2015, and Helen Organ - have also resigned. Alongside Dr Rashid, Mr Surman is also a director of Friary West while Mrs Organ’s departure is entirely unrelated to the current investigation.

Firstsite bosses say Dr Rashid - a 52-year-old management consultant who was appointed to the board on July 15, 2015 and subsequently took up his a directorship with Friary West in January 2016 - took the step himself because of ongoing questions over his links to the Maldon-based firm. 

His position was declared in the Board of Trustees’ Register of Interests, and he has stated he has never received a financial reward for his work for the company.

As reported by the Gazette last month, in 2015/16 the gallery paid Friary West £92,202.

The cost was reduced last year, to £18,087.

Gazette: Dr Noorzaman Rashid firstsite resigns

Resigned - Dr Noorzaman Rashid

The gallery, which owed Friary West about £100 at the end of the 2016/17 financial year, no longer uses the firm and HR admin now costs less than £2,000-a-year. 

It is still not known who, from Firstsite, authorised the payments to Friary West.

As part of the charity’s annual accounts, ending March 2017, the report states: “During the year the charity obtained human resource (HR) services from Friary West Limited, a company with common directors.

“The transactions were conducted on an arms length basis.”

A spokesperson for Firstsite said: “The accounts filed by Friary West Limited at Companies House do not show any payments made to Dr Rashid.

“However, because of ongoing questions about Dr Rashid and Friary West, Firstsite has instructed auditors to examine all of its transactions with the company.

“It will also undertake a review of its board policies and procedures.”

Mr Surman, a Firstsite trustee since September 2015, has also resigned, having taken up a directorship at  Friary West Limited in the same month as Dr Rashid. 

Mr Surman has also stated he has received no financial reward for his work for Friary West.

Tim Young, the Colchester Council representative on the gallery’s board of trustees and the authority’s tourism boss, said: “There is no question this is the right course of action.

“It is now right and proper that an investigation takes place and that investigation has our full backing.”

The Gazette has continued to attempted to contact both Mr Surman and Dr Rashid through Friary West a number of times but no response was received.

Friary West Ltd was set up in March 2013.

It was, and remains, a one share company, with that share valued at £1.

By April 2, 2014, it had been given dormant company status.

In January 2016, four new directors, including Dr Rashid and Mr Surman were appointed.

They were joined by a fifth director in May of that year.

According to the firm’s most recent accounts, ending March 31, 2017, it appears to have made a £68,683 loss in that financial year.

In 2015, accounts show £195,000 was spent on staff salaries while in 2016 the number dropped to £140,000.

It is not known how many staff the company employs.

Dr Rashid is also a director of two firms, called the Foundation for Social Improvement, since July 2016, and Strategy for Change, since May 2012.

An active proposal from Companies House to strike off Strategy for Change, of which Dr Rashid is a sole director, was published on February 27.

Its accounts are overdue and it has until the end of April to file.

A similar proposal was discontinued by Companies House in 2016.