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Watchdog to investigate alleged nepotism, misuse of funds at ANU school of music

A government watchdog has agreed to investigate alleged nepotism and misuse of public funds inside the Australian National University School of Music.

The investigation, by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, is in response to a complaint made under public interest disclosure laws by a former head of the school, Professor Peter Tregear, who resigned in 2015.

The allegations to be investigated were outlined in a letter to the professor from the Ombudsman's office dated February 13 this year.

They include a possible conflict of interest, the promotion and preferential treatment of staff, and claims an academic's salary was paid for from an account connected with an ACT government grant.

Other allegations to be addressed include that when staff raised concerns no action was taken by ANU senior management and also claims the head of school was unable to access budget information, despite repeated requests.

"I am reasonably satisfied that the information provided tends to show instances of disclosable conduct, namely, conduct that constitutes maladministration and conduct which if proved would be grounds for disciplinary action and/or conduct which is in breach of a law," the letter said.

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The school has sought to rebuild itself after a troubled few years culminating in an independent review in 2016 by Professor Andrew Podger, who concluded the school was not delivering the excellence in teaching required of a top university.

Following Professor Podger's report ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt announced a $12 million investment, and on Tuesday the school opened a $1 million "state of the art" recording studio.

Professor Podger had also recommended a moratorium on action initiated by the university to pursue instances of mismanagement or misbehaviour.

On Wednesday, Professor Tregear told Fairfax Media he did not invoke the powers of the public interest disclosure laws lightly but as a matter of conscience.

"I am sure the ANU and I share a desire to move on from the recent difficult few years. But we also have an overriding responsibility to uphold the integrity of the positions we hold and thus preserve the broader trust that the public vests in us," he said.

"I also confess that I disagree with the Podger Report's recommendation of a blanket moratorium for the ANU's treatment of the school and its students and staff over the past few years. There is indeed truth to that old adage that 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'"

The public interest disclosure laws, introduced in 2013, protect from reprisal public officials who blow the whistle, and make them immune from civil, criminal or administrative liability after disclosing information deemed to be in the public interest.

There are strict rules around who can disclose what and what makes the information in the public interest.

A spokesman for the ANU said it was unaware of any investigation. It strongly rejected claims of a conflict of interest at the school and any impropriety in the use of public funds.