A Winnipeg woman has been sentenced to four years in prison after admitting she had defrauded a social services agency of more than $1 million earmarked for Indigenous children.
Gwendolen Reid, 47, pleaded guilty to one count of fraud over $5,000.
Reid was hired in January 2016 as manager of finance and administration for Shawenim Abinoojii Inc., an agency that provides foster care, support worker services and programming aimed at reducing the number of Indigenous children in care. Less than two months after she was hired, Reid began manipulating agency financial accounts for her personal benefit.
"She took complete advantage of us," executive director Jason Whitford told provincial court Judge Sandy Chapman at a sentencing hearing Tuesday
"What her theft has done to our organization is taken away opportunities for children. It’s taken away opportunities for resources, for programming, for supports in children’s lives," Whitford said. "To have that happen in an organization that works with the most vulnerable in our population… it’s despicable. It’s very difficult to forgive those actions."
“What her theft has done to our organization is taken away opportunities for children. It’s taken away opportunities for resources, for programming, for supports in children’s lives… it’s despicable. It’s very difficult to forgive those actions.” — Shawenim Abinoojii Inc.'s executive director Jason Whitford
An agreed statement of facts provided to court says Reid had signing authority for agency cheques and was the only person on staff with "complete access" to the financial and payroll software programs.
Reid altered her personal direct payroll deposits to sometimes pay herself triple her normal salary. She created direct deposit accounts for five former employees and rerouted $220,000 into her own bank accounts before the fraud was uncovered in January 2019.
Reid siphoned another $740,000 from the agency by forging 151 cheques, which she entered into agency ledgers as "one-time payments to vendors." Reid used an agency credit card to rack up another $70,000 in unauthorized cash advances and purchases.
Reid used much of the money for family vacations, Las Vegas getaways, including $5,000 for Celine Dion concert tickets, and new furniture for her children.
"This is calculated and this offender is sophisticated," Crown attorney Terry McComb told court. "This is white-collar crime by somebody who knew her job well."
Reid claimed she lost $800,000 of the agency’s money at city casinos. McComb said an investigation revealed that figure was closer to $450,000, adding Reid didn’t start gambling until well after she had begun defrauding the agency.
“This is calculated and this offender is sophisticated. This is white-collar crime by somebody who knew her job well." — Crown attorney Terry McComb
"Gambling was a component of this, but a large amount of the funds went to lifestyle enhancements," McComb said, adding court was provided no evidence Reid suffered from a gambling addiction.
"The offending came first, which enabled her to gamble as she did," McComb said. "(Gambling) is part of the lifestyle enhancement because it is recreation and entertainment."
Reid is indeed a gambling addict, defence lawyer Ethan Pollock countered, telling court she frequently stayed at casinos from opening until closing.
"Whether she gambled $800,000 or $450,000, these numbers are staggering… and indicative of a mental illness," Pollock said.
"She’s smart, educated… and she used her position at (the agency) as a springboard to further her gambling," he said.
“Whether she gambled $800,000 or $450,000, these numbers are staggering… and indicative of a mental illness.” — Defence lawyer Ethan Pollock
Court was told Whitford was briefly ousted as executive director after Reid raised concerns about him in an effort to deflect an investigation into the fraud.
Whitford won his job back and started his own investigation, during which two staffers found a box of suspect financial documents labelled "for shredding" in Reid’s office.
Reid is Indigenous and experienced some of the same hurdles as other Indigenous offenders, including a family residential school history and parental dysfunction.
"It’s just so unfortunate, an individual like yourself who was able to rise above certain issues," Chapman said. "That’s what is such a tragedy here, that you have fallen so far, when you could have been a star."
Shawenim Abinoojii’s insurance covered only $150,000 of its losses. Reid’s sentence includes an order she pay more than $1 million in restitution.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.