Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province sues ex-staffers to recover over $304,000

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FIVE former senior members of the province's Office of the Fire Commissioner have been named in a lawsuit in an attempt by the government to recoup more than $304,000 allegedly paid in unsupported expense claims.

The statement of claim follows a report released by the province's auditor general, Carol Bellringer, earlier this year that found the former employees allegedly colluded to fabricate expense claims for several years before being caught in 2011 when American Express cancelled a government-issued credit card for non-payment.

The claim names former fire commissioner Christopher Jones, retired fire commissioner Doug Popowich, deputy OFC commissioner Justin Panagapko and senior employees Rick Vandekerkhove and Scott Ritzer.

"We are committed to ensuring the Office of the Fire Commissioner operates with integrity and effective oversight," a government spokesman said after the claim was filed late Thursday. "When internal government processes revealed spending irregularities at the OFC, action was swiftly and appropriately taken."

The OFC investigates the cause of fires, co-ordinates rescue missions when people get lost in a forest or are stranded by floods, inspects elevators and boilers, issues building and occupancy permits and oversees training for firefighters and paramedics.

When the irregularities came to light in mid-2011, Jones and the others were fired. Popowich retired about two years ago.

The defendants have 40 days to file a statement of defence, 60 if they reside outside Canada.

The claims say that between April 1, 2007 and July 31, 2011, each of the five "engaged in a pattern of behaviour of submitting expense claims to the Government of Manitoba for their own personal benefit and gain."

Specifically, the claim alleges each of the five claimed reimbursement for expenses without supporting documents, claimed reimbursement for expenses multiple times and claimed reimbursement for expenses that did not occur.

The nine-page court document also says the defendants allegedly claimed expenses unrelated to their jobs, falsified expense claims to account for advance payments, altered receipts to support expense claims and in some instances photocopied or forged signatures or obtained signatures from people who were not authorized to approve expenses.

In particular, the claim says $145,844 was paid to Jones, $63,525 to Panagapko, $58,505 to Popowich, $28,544 to Vandekerkhove and $7,944 to Ritzer.

"The defendants agreed and conspired to engage in the unlawful conduct related to the unsupported expense claims," the statement of claim says. "The defendants made the unsupported expense claims for the purpose of deceiving the Government of Manitoba."

Following Bellringer's report, the matter was forwarded to the RCMP. That investigation continues.

The provincial spokesman said following Bellringer's report and recommendations, the OFC's financial and administrative functions were reorganized to improve accountability and oversight.

Fire Commissioner David Schafer was appointed a year ago to replace Jones.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2013 A4

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