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Feds order probe into evacuee payments

It's alleged taxpayer dollars misappropriated by MANFF

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Misty Lake Lodge owner says he is owed $2.3 million.

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Misty Lake Lodge owner says he is owed $2.3 million. Photo Store

Ottawa has ordered an independent investigation into the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters after fresh allegations Manitoba taxpayers paid bills that exaggerate the true cost of flood evacuees to the province.

The most serious allegation suggests Manitoba tax dollars earmarked for flood evacuees were misappropriated and used to pay some $3 million in hotel tabs for First Nations evacuees fleeing fires last summer.

That led to hotels covering expenses for some legitimate flood evacuees.

Another document now in Ottawa's hands states there's $1 million in unpaid bills as of January to half a dozen hotels and security companies in Winnipeg and Brandon.

There are also allegations MANFF staff on duty at the Misty Lake Lodge in Gimli were repeatedly inebriated and responsible for acts of vandalism to hotel property and physical altercations that resulted in calls to police. The allegations are contained in a dossier of material submitted to regional officials with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

The allegations are unproven and MANFF staff are presumed innocent.

Daren Mini, the executive director of MANFF, did not respond to email requests for a response to the allegations.

That material was mostly collected and handed over by Mike Bruneau, the owner and manager of both the Misty Lake Lodge and the Ashern Motor Hotel.

In a sample entry, Retha Dyke, Misty Lake general manager, notes that one MANFF flood co-ordinator "has been so drunk that he is incoherent, stumbling and almost fell asleep in my office."

In other incidents with different MANFF staff, Bruneau alleges sexual activity with evacuees and the use of illegal drugs while on duty.

The material in Ottawa's hands includes financial records from MANFF offices supplied by a former flood-liaison officer.

It includes material that suggests MANFF misappropriated Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization funds earmarked for flood evacuees to pay hotel bills for fire evacuees last summer.

Among the other allegations, senior staff is accused of padding expense, mileage and overtime sheets and taking expensive trips to purchase equipment in Vancouver and to attend a conference in Toronto. At the same time, a junior staffer allegedly wasn't paid for three weeks and had her hydro temporarily cut off.

"At this time, the allegations have not been proven," Anna Fontaine, regional director of Aboriginal Affairs in Winnipeg, said in an email to Bruneau.

"The department will not comment further until the investigation is completed... the results will be provided to the department in May or June," Bruneau added in the email.

"The department is deeply concerned about the allegations and complaints received and will be turning the information you provided to us over to an independent investigation team."

Bruneau said he's already heard from an official whom Fontaine identified as likely overseeing the investigation.

"He's flying in (today) or Friday morning from out of town and we're meeting," he said.

Bruneau blew the whistle last month on a mountain of unpaid hotel bills, handing over invoices and emails to regional Aboriginal Affairs staff that show his hotels are owed $2.3 million.

Federal officials responded by launching a management review amid questions about how flood management on reserves is handled.

Bruneau said he's relieved Ottawa is taking action to investigate MANFF's handling of evacuees.

He said on Tuesday, MANFF staff pulled up behind the Misty Lake Lodge and removed one family, with three school-aged children, the second such raid in recent weeks.

"They came in, sneaked in, and took five of them, a mother, her three children and her sister," he said.

Bruneau said he doesn't know where they were taken.

He said his hotel manager tried to console the two women, who were in tears as they were forced to leave the hotel without any notice.

MANFF is the non-profit agency with the sole contribution agreement to handle flood- and fire-related evacuations from First Nations.

Typically, that involves short-term stays in hotels until the emergency is over, with Ottawa picking up the tab and MANFF handling the arrangements.

Since the spring of 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 for their hotel stays.

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 more than $72 million for 2011 evacuations.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A7

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