December 5, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The leader of a Manitoba emergency services agency under a federal probe booked a Vancouver trip for himself and a woman, where the two shared a hotel room for a week last October.
The next month, the same leader, CEO Daren Mini, and seven others took another all-expenses-paid trip to Toronto for a national conference hosted by ground search and rescue.
Both trips took place within a month of each other and both were on the taxpayers' dime, internal documents bearing the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters official letterhead state.
The agency, in charge of services for nearly 2,000 displaced First Nations flood evacuees since 2011, is the same one that's at the centre of a federal investigation. That probe is looking at allegations that funds earmarked for flood victims were misappropriated and hotels are owed millions of dollars.
Documents obtained by the Free Press show staff at MANFF questioned both trips but didn't do anything to stop them.
The disclosures are the latest in a paper trail of financial irregularities and questionable decisions the Free Press reported a month ago when Ottawa announced its investigation.
Also part of the probe are allegations of family favouritism, fraudulent mileage claims, hundreds of hours of questionable overtime, excessive catering costs and even suspicion that a break-in and theft of at least $6,000 in cash in September 2012 was an inside job.
Ottawa is looking at the trips as junkets.
-Andrea Richer, spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt
"These are serious allegations and any evidence to support them will be turned over to the police," said Andrea Richer, a spokeswoman in the office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.
"We will not tolerate the abuse of tax dollars. That is why we have asked an independent investigator to look into the allegations and report back to us," Valcourt's spokeswoman said.
Both trips were recorded in a massive dossier compiled by former MANFF flood liaison officer Ted Ducharme over a period of two years.
Ducharme ultimately confronted senior management and the board chair with his suspicions and then turned it over to federal authorities in May. He no longer works at MANFF.
The Free Press has a copy of the dossier.
In an interview Wednesday, Ducharme said neither trip could be justified by financial records at MANFF.
He called the Toronto conference "a big drunk on the taxpayers' dime" and the Vancouver trip a romantic getaway for the CEO and the woman.
In a report Ducharme filed on MANFF letterhead dated Nov. 15, 2012, he recorded that eight senior staff flew to Toronto to take part in a national ground search and rescue competition, where they ultimately placed near the bottom in a skills competition.
The trip lasted "four or five days," he said.
"They were texting us back about sightseeing tours to Niagara Falls, Toronto and other venues. They sent us back pictures of MANFF staff drunk and passed out on the plane home. How do we pay our flood hotels when they are spending evacuee flood funds like it is going out of style?" Ducharme said in his report.
His report also cites complaints that Mini took the woman, also a MANFF worker, on a week-long romantic getaway to Vancouver "under the guise of MANFF business" and they shared a single hotel room for the entire trip.
Meanwhile, Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson, one of two chiefs appointed by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, quit his board position at MANFF last week, citing time constraints.
On Wednesday, he delivered a spirited defence of the agency.
MANFF was set up to train firefighters on First Nations and found itself with the monumental task of running a permanent flood relief agency without proper staff or funding, he said.
"These complaints, these claims that started the whole process? It was our people who are in the best position to operate these services but the whole set-up? It's the system that's fundamentally flawed. It's the federal government that doesn't fund them accordingly. At the end of the day, it's MANFF that's looked at as the scapegoat for the problems," he said Wednesday.
Since spring 2011, when flooding across southern Manitoba forced thousands of First Nations residents from their homes, MANFF has been the agency that registers evacuees and arranges their accommodations. It was set up in the 1990s to train firefighters on First Nations after devastating northern forest fires.
Under memorandums of understanding with Manitoba and Ottawa, MANFF pays the invoices and sends them to the province for reimbursement. Manitoba sends the bills to the federal Department of Public Safety under disaster financial assistance. Public Safety collects its payouts from Aboriginal Affairs. So far, Manitoba has reimbursed MANFF for close to $78 million for the 2011 evacuations.
In a statement from spokesman Jimmy Mac, MANFF insisted late Wednesday both trips were legitimate:
"Further to your email earlier today, I want to ensure that you are aware of the facts relating to the issues you are pursuing in your story for tomorrow's paper.
"Though you did not confirm your source or any documentation you may or may not have, which we respect, you should be aware that there is no basis to the allegations being made. For instance, the event in Toronto was a Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) conference and exercise that was paid for by MANFF out of its program development budget, funded by AANDC.
"This professional development is critical to our communities as it keeps us current and better prepared to deal with all kinds of emergency incidents. Further, it is important to note that flood monies are held in a totally separate account.
"In terms of the trip to Vancouver, that was to attend the ninth annual Canadian Risk and Hazards Network Symposium and the National Platform Roundtable for the Resilient Communities Working Group (RCWG) Strategic Planning Meeting.
"Again, attendance at this event was budgeted for out of program development, funded by AANDC, and was an important opportunity for us to focus on emergency planning and networking with colleagues from across the country.
"Thank you for the opportunity to respond to these false and harmful allegations."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 23, 2013 A3