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Chiefs in damage control

SCO executive to run operation during probe

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Murray Clearsky: keeping a low profile

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A day after the Southern Chiefs Organization showed its leader the door with a paid suspension, it had yet to declare how it planned to track the paper trail that led to the spending scandal in the first place.

By late Tuesday, the five-member executive committee that functions as the board for the lobby group was still behind closed doors, debating steps to salvage the organization's tattered reputation.

The executive is taking over the day-to-day operation, perhaps with the help of a management team of some sort, until an investigation into the scandal is complete. That probe could be wrapped up as early as the weekend, reporters were told Tuesday.

SCO Grand Chief Murray Clearsky began his first day of paid suspension keeping a low profile, not taking calls, despite an earlier promise to give a full public account. He's said to be following a lawyer's advice to stay quiet.

Clearsky is accused of spending $10,000 of the SCO's money in a series of ATM withdrawals in Shakopee and Prior Lake, Minn., where the Mystic Lake Casino and a popular amusement park are located.

The trips were in August and September.

'It's a... joke what's going on in there, the way they're hemming and hawing in there'

Clearsky's chief of staff, Mike Bear, was also suspended with pay but for different reasons. He faces a sexual-harassment complaint now under investigation by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The allegations against both men have yet to be proven, which explains why they're still being paid and not out the door completely, one political analyst said Tuesday.

The SCO represents 33 chiefs in southern Manitoba.

Jacqueline Romanow, an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg's aboriginal governance program, called the penalty against Bear reasonable.

The penalty against Clearsky isn't as cut and dried, she said.

"It would depend on the strength of the evidence they're looking at," she said. "I'm assuming they asked for an initial explanation and it was insufficient."

Clearsky made two appearances before the chiefs Monday night, declaring he intended to give a full account. Before the meeting, the leader told the Free Press he was convinced the chiefs had authorized an ATM debit card to make direct withdrawals on the SCO bank account while in Minnesota on the two trips in August and September.

For most of the seven hours the chiefs debated his fate, the grand chief cooled his heels outside the Victoria Inn.

Clearsky kept company the whole time with an SCO accountant, a lawyer and the chief of staff.

The accountant acknowledged a heavy canvas bag on his shoulder contained the evidence Clearsky intended to present to clear his name. He never got that chance because the chiefs didn't asked to see it. "You hang in there," said one chief, patting the man on the shoulder and offering a friendly handshake when the line of chiefs filed out the door at the end.

It was clear some chiefs were upset with the outcome. Long Plain's Dennis Meeches and Swan Lake's Francine Meeches both walked out of the meeting just before it wrapped up.

Francine Meeches was visibly angry when she strode past the waiting meeting. Asked for her comment, she turned and faced reporters. She felt embarrassed, she said.

"It's a... joke what's going on in there," she said, "the way they're hemming and hawing in there."

Dennis Meeches said he got nowhere with Clearsky during his appearances. "I asked him to resign. He didn't give me an answer though."

Romanow said that is a strong indication the two chiefs are aware their political organization is under a dark cloud.

"Is everybody happy?" she asked. "No. Some chiefs are really upset and they want the grand chief to resign. There are going to be a lot of questions until they give an explanation (in public).

"Chiefs in these situations have a lot of power and you have to make sure you have checks and safeguards through your executive or that your financial officer does."

Romanow said it's unheard of for a chief to be handed an ATM card.

Typically, aboriginal politicians, like other politicians, file expenses or are requisitioned a cheque in advance for business trips.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 2, 2013 A7

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