Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Woman admits stealing welfare money to pay off cocaine dealer

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BRANDON -- The former welfare administrator of a Westman First Nation has admitted she stole welfare money and passed along tens of thousands of dollars to her drug dealer.

She took the money by illegally issuing welfare cheques.

"The accused admitted that the cheques were issued to pay for her cocaine habit," Crown attorney Rich Lonstrup said in Brandon Court of Queen’s Bench on Monday.

Edith Chalmers, 55, pleaded guilty to fraud, by creating false social assistance cheques, and to theft, by stealing social assistance cheques.

The offences were committed between April 1, 2008 and May 31, 2009.

During Monday’s court proceeding, Lonstrup provided a brief outline of the facts, which Chalmers admitted.

Chalmers was welfare administrator for the Birdtail Sioux First Nation when she illicitly "siphoned" $177,862.71 from band welfare accounts.

She had three methods for stealing the money using the welfare cheques. First, she’d issue cheques in her own name, or that of her cocaine dealer.

Second, she’d issue cheques in the names of her daughters, who would cash them and share the money with their mom.

Third, she would issue cheques in the names of real, but unaware, welfare recipients. Chalmers would then forge their names on the endorsed cheques and cash them or deposit them for herself.

All three methods required her to forge the names of two people with signing authority.

Chalmers also made frequent misleading entries on software used by the First Nation to log social assistance payments for review by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. In many cases, the illegal cheques were never recorded at all on the software.

Chalmers later admitted that she’d committed the crimes to pay for her cocaine habit.

A known drug dealer on the reserve verified that Chalmers had deposited money into his account to pay for drugs.

Investigators were able to trace $76,113.12 that was paid to the dealer through cheques and money orders.

Lonstrup said the rest of the money taken by Chalmers couldn’t be traced.

Chalmers faces a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

However, sentencing has been delayed until April to allow the preparation of a pre-sentence report which will consider Chalmers’ aboriginal background.

It will also consider whether she’s a candidate for a conditional sentence order which typically brings house arrest, indicating that may be the sentence she seeks.

The maximum for such a conditional sentence is two years less a day.

Chalmers’ daughters, 35-year-old Kimberly Dawn Elk and 30-year-old Kristen Elk, were both previously convicted of possession of property obtained by crime and both received two-year suspended sentences with community service work.

Charges are still pending on the man said to be the drug dealer.

ihitchen@brandonsun.com

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