Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Former fire boss charged in fraud case

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A former Manitoba fire commissioner is facing several criminal charges following a police investigation sparked by findings of financial irregularities within his office.

Christopher Jones will be in a Winnipeg courtroom Feb. 26 and formally charged with counts of breach of trust by a public officer, fraud, forgery and use of a forged document, RCMP said Friday.

Jones remains free in the community on unspecified conditions, said police. The allegations have not been proven in court and he is presumed innocent.

Jones, who was dismissed in mid-2011, is accused of doctoring documents to make expense claims to the tune of more than $55,000 between June 2009 and February 2011, police said.

The RCMP investigation got underway well over a year ago and was conducted by the federal serious organized crime unit.

In November 2012, Manitoba's comptroller's office passed along a forensic audit report conducted by the auditor general which found "allegations of irregular financial activities" within the Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC).

"The RCMP investigation identified accountable advances and/or expense claims which were believed to have been supported by documents which had been fabricated and or forged," RCMP said in a statement.

"In excess of $55,000.00 was disbursed as unsupported payments with the ultimate beneficiary being the former fire commissioner for the Province of Manitoba," RCMP said.

The allegations regarding the OFC have been well-known for some time.

In January 2013, then-auditor general Carol Bellringer said a probe by her office found former OFC employees colluded to fabricate expense claims for several years.

"Over several years, we believe, OFC employees received payments they were not entitled to that were supported by documents that may have been fabricated and, in one instance, may have been forged," Bellringer said.

Expenses alleged to be fabricated included meal per diems, private vehicle mileage and for private accommodation, said Bellringer, who alleged at least $300,000 in inappropriate expenses were paid to OFC employees between 2007 and 2011.

Jones and four other former senior OFC members are also named in a lawsuit initiated by the province on March 28, 2013.

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

It alleges each of the five engaged in a pattern of behaviour meant to personally benefit themselves by submitting expense claims without supporting documents and requesting reimbursement for expenses that didn't occur.

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

The lawsuit has lay dormant since May 2013 and none of the defendants have filed a statement of defence. The allegations made by the province have not been tested in court.

Sgt. Rob Lockhart could not elaborate Friday on the criminal case Jones faces nor confirm if further arrests are expected.

-- staff

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 A9

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