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Southern chiefs suspend Grand Chief Clearsky amid spending scandal

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SCO Grand Chief Murray Clearsky was suspended with pay.

JESSICA BURTNICK/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

SCO Grand Chief Murray Clearsky was suspended with pay. Photo Store

Southern chiefs suspended their leader and his senior staff advisor early this morning and vowed to bring in investigators to probe allegations the suspended grand chief tapped their organization's bank account to the tune of nearly $10,000 on a gambling excursion.

In a marathon meeting that went from 7 p.m. Monday until the wee hours of the morning Tuesday, the southern chiefs suspended Grand Chief Murray Clearsky and his chief of staff Mike Bear, both with pay, today.

The action came after Ottawa urged the Southern Chiefs Organization to take immediate steps in the wake of a scandal that threatened to engulf the lobby group for 33 First Nations in southern Manitoba.

The scandal blew up after bank statements reported to be from SCO showed a series of withdrawals at ATM's in two towns locate near the Misty Lake Casino in August and September. It was the same time the grand chief was reported to be travelling in the area. The withdrawals totalled nearly $10,000.

The allegations have not been proven and Clearsky made no comments after the decision came down. Earlier Monday, the grand chief strenuously denied doing anything wrong and insisted he had the chiefs' authorization to make the withdrawals.

The chief of staff faces a separate scandal that blew up the same time the controversy broke about his boss. He is accused of sexual harassment in a complaint from a former staff member that is now before the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The commission has just started its investigation.

"We just met with the Southern Grand Chief," said former grand chief Morris Swan Shannacappo who acted as spokesman for the group at the end of a marathon session that lasted seven hours and broke up just before 2 a.m. "We deliberated quite awhile about the allegations and we have suspended the grand chief with pay, as well as his chief of staff, with pay."

More than a dozen chiefs filed out ahead of Shannacappo , looking grim as they passed a media gauntlet when the doors at their conference room opened at Victoria Inn.

But it was clear that the decision represented a milder sanction out of a menu that ranged from doing nothing to impeaching the grand chief or removing him from office on the spot.

Two chiefs, Long Plain's Dennis Meeches and Swan Lake's Francine Meeches, left the meeting one after the other, plainly dissatisfied the suspension was not harsh enough.

Francine Meeches was visibly angry when she walked out. She told reporters she felt embarrassed. "It's a f-----g joke what's goes on in there," she said,"the way they're hemming and hawing in there."

Dennis Meeches said "I asked him to resign. He didn't give me an answer though."

Shannacappo meanwhile defended the suspension as proof the chiefs took the allegations seriously and are determined to take some action.

"Yes, it was tough...people come in with a predetermined mindset," Shannacappo said.

The next steps for the organization are to investigate the spending scandal, Shannacappo said.

The group plans to form a team drawn from member tribal councils to follow the paper trail in the spending allegations.

Clearly anxious to create distance for the chiefs as the probe is launched, Shannacappo said the investigation won't involve any of the chiefs directly.

"I'm not going to do any investigation," he said. "It's not going to be done by our own chiefs."

Exactly who will be examining the organization's books and the grand chiefs expense receipts was not clear last night but Shannacappo stressed it won't be a long drawn out process.

He said the chiefs want an answer on who withdrew the thousands of dollars from SCO's bank account and what it was spent on. And they want it fast.

Shannacappo said the chiefs hope the investigation will be completed by Friday. In the meantime, another meeting of the chiefs' executive committee is scheduled for later today.

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