ARMED with envelopes full of receipts, ousted Southern grand chief Murray Clearsky said he always planned to repay personal travel and truck repair expenses, but that a politically motivated scandal engulfed him before he could.
"I'll admit to some of them but not all," said Clearsky of the improper expenses. "I've been a leader for my community for 25 years. Not once have I ever stole anything, money, anything."
Federal auditors are seeking to recover more than $260,000 in questionable expenses paid to Clearsky and other former senior officials with the Southern Chiefs' Organization. The troublesome transactions included trips to Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Alberta, cash withdrawals on a corporate debit card, retroactive pay increases and traditional healing services. The expenses date back to the 2010-11 fiscal year and were paid to Clearsky, his chief of staff Mike Bear and the grand chief who served previously, Morris Shannacappo.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Clearsky said it's the first time since the scandal cost him his job last fall that he's been presented with a detailed set of accusations. He said he can explain many of the payments, including a salary advance worth roughly $12,000 to fix his truck, which broke down repeatedly, stranding him at one point in Onion Lake following a caravan ride across Western Canada for treaty rights last summer. Clearsky said he'd begun to repay the advance through deductions from his salary before he was removed from office.
Since then, he's had trouble finding employment and paying his mortgage.
"Being painted all over the press such as this, it's pretty hard to get a job," said Clearsky. "I ended up losing my family over all this. I'm down, big time."
Clearsky said some of the 33 chiefs who form the SCO may have wanted him gone, and used the expenses scandal to orchestrate his removal.
Current SCO Grand Chief Terry Nelson pointed to a larger political witch hunt, saying the audit is part of an attempt by Ottawa to undermine First Nations' political organisations by cutting budgets, passing legislation such as the First Nations Financial Transparency Act and launching time-consuming financial reviews on both the southern and northern chiefs' organisations as well as outspoken bands.
"It's pretty clear there was an organized campaign against (Clearsky)," said Nelson.
Nelson said though he is a personal friend of Clearsky, "business is business." It will be up to SCO to repay Ottawa for any expenses that can't be justified.
"I want to make sure nothing is hidden," said Nelson. "Where things can't be explained, there will be recovery."
Repaying the expenses could cripple the SCO, whose operating budget has recently been cut by more than 40 per cent to $500,000 annually.