Original Published on Aug 05, 2022 at 09:24
By Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Members of the defunct Emergency Response Unit (ERU) are fighting back against accusations of financial mismanagement after the executive summary of a forensic audit of the organization was presented to the community last month.
An 11-page open letter signed by seven ERU members and former grand chief Serge Otsi Simon details the accomplishments of the organization, which managed the community’s pandemic response, and addresses some of the executive summary’s points.
“The ERU did nothing wrong, and I expect that when they’re exonerated … that there’s going to be a public apology,” said Simon, who was not part of the ERU but participated in its oversight in his capacity as grand chief. He has been outspoken in his defence of the group in recent weeks.
The summary of the external audit covering April 1, 2020 to July 31, 2021, alleges sloppy record-keeping and outlines compensation for members that added ERU rates and top-ups to existing Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) or Kanesatake Health Center (KHC) salaries.
The ERU was responsible for managing $3.9 million during that period, under agreement with KHC, which incurred $4.7 million in expenses over the same timespan.
In one case, the pay scale cited by the report resulted in nearly $600,000 disbursed to a single individual, incident commander and former vice-chief Patricia Meilleur, over the 16-month period.
Meilleur, one of the signatories to the open letter, declined to be quoted in this article, citing unrelated litigation.
In the open letter and subsequent interviews, ERU members insist their pay reflected industry standards, work weeks exceeding 80 hours and commensurate overtime, and the fact that all MCK employees were receiving pay whether or not they were working during pandemic shutdowns.
“The timesheets would show more of how many hours that we worked. (The executive summary) doesn’t show that, it just gives you a global amount,” said Joyce Bonspiel-Nelson, executive director of KHC until she was terminated last year.
Bonspiel-Nelson received $375,152 over 16 months between KHC and her ERU role as health section manager.
She said that pay rates were in line with other health organizations tasked with pandemic management.
A June article from TVA Nouvelles showed that some senior health-sector executives received compensation 80 percent higher in 2020 than the previous year due to paid overtime. In 2020, the highest-paid administrator was at CIUSSS de Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, earning nearly $465,000 that year.
The ERU members have also argued high compensations were necessary for retention and a natural result of excessive overtime.
“I was doing 80 or 90 hours because that’s what was needed by my community and to make sure they stayed safe,” said emergency response consultant Robert Bonspiel, another signatory on the ERU statement. Bonspiel’s compensation over the 16 months was about $285,000, including MCK consulting fees.
He questioned why the current critics of the ERU did not get involved, which would have lessened the need for overtime.
“If I’m to blame for anything, I guess my work ethic should be questioned in that I work too goddamn much.”
The 11-page open letter lists more than 50 responsibilities managed by the ERU.
“Nobody’s talking about the good that was done. They’re only talking about the negative stuff. There was so much that was achieved in this community,” Bonspiel said.
Bonspiel cited management of the access control team, grocery and medication delivery, the distribution of supplies, the Kanesatake Emergency Relief Benefit, and disinfecting houses, among other facets of the ERU’s contribution.
“Some level of service was offered to the community, yes,” noted Teiawenniserate Jeremy Tomlinson, the current head of KHC who has led calls for looking into the finances of the ERU. “Nobody is really discounting that, and to focus on this really deflects from the major issue at hand, which is the abuse of public trust resulting in substantial financial gain by persons in positions of power and authority in public office.
“As to whether questions remained unanswered, (the letter) didn’t really address any contentious issue with any factual basis or any level of credibility. To justify this type of remuneration through an extrapolation that they were actively saving lives is quite vain in my opinion.”
Among the ERU members’ core complaints is that they have been unable to access the full audit, which they contend would aid them in their efforts to defend their reputations by providing additional context and possibly expose mistakes on the part of the auditor.
“I want to see it to see if the allegations of wrongdoing were construed by the powers that published them,” said Bonspiel. “And I want to be able to make that evaluation for myself.”
Bonspiel recently requested the full audit from grand chief Victor Bonspille, but he was denied access to it. Bonspille cited an ongoing investigation in his refusal.
The Eastern Door confirmed this week that an investigation into the ERU by the Sûreté du Québec remains active.
“We don’t want to have anything complicated or anything misleading to any type of investigation,” said Bonspille. “So we left it at the executive summary. We gave the nits and grits of what was involved.”
Bonspille did not elaborate on why the release of the document could compromise an investigation, however he argued the information available satisfies the community’s demand to know how the ERU funds were spent and who received them.
“I don’t see why they couldn’t release the whole thing,” said Simon. “It wouldn’t compromise any investigation, for crying out loud. That’s a really poor excuse.”
“I don’t even think there’s anything in there that they are putting out there that has any truth to it,” said Bonspiel-Nelson. “We have done nothing wrong, and everything we did was above board, so why not show the whole audit?”
ERU members have also objected that they were not invited to shed light on the numbers as part of the auditing process.
“I don’t know how they did the audit, but nobody ever contacted me, so I’m sure there’s a lot of wrong things in it, and they need more information,” said Marie-Claude Bernard, the ERU’s finance head.
Bonspille dismissed the idea that this would have changed anything. ERU members who also served as Council chiefs with the previous Council were given the opportunity to explain themselves when they were presented a 17-page document requesting answers related to finances, but had refused to provide answers, according to Bonspille.
“I was trying to get answers to the 17-page document,” said Bonspille. “And I was denied.”
ERU members are also defending themselves against activities represented in the executive summary as irregularities.
According to the audit summary, purchases and reimbursements over $5,000 were routinely made without the approval of Council as would be required by the MCK’s procedures. Reporting by Ricochet indicated that a bonus was paid out in a similar fashion.
“The KHC is not under the Mohawk Council. We are a totally separate entity,” said Bonspiel-Nelson, who signed off on the items. “Board only had one employee, which (was) me,” she said. “All the other employees were underneath me. And I was able to sign off up to about $75,000, so I don’t see where this $5,000 under the MCK – that’s MCK’s policy.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we declared a state of emergency; KHC was going to be the entity managing the pandemic. (ERU was) under KHC’s policies and procedures, not MCK’s,” said Simon.
Purchases were often made on the credit cards of ERU members and later reimbursed, which multiple members said was necessary due to delays in receipt of funding from the federal government.
The audit notes that for many of these reimbursements, formal expense reports were not prepared.
“Nothing, not one cent was reimbursed without it being documented,” countered Bonspiel-Nelson.
“It needed to be done. And as long as they had all the receipts, and what it was for was clearly marked, and it was brought into the right department – yes, they were reimbursed,” said Bonspiel-Nelson.
The audit summary indicated that ERU rates did not go through the standard payroll system. According to Tomlinson, this may lead to liability issues for KHC because payments did not meet deduction requirements.
The audit summary also mentioned the purchase of personal protective equipment from First Nations Paramedics (FNP), owned by Bonspiel. He said he simply leveraged FNP’s access to the scarce supplies for the benefit of the community and that his company did not profit.
Bernard offered a similar explanation for the $36,618 purchase of a fridge and freezer room from a numbered company owned by an ERU member, later reissued in the member’s name. She said this was done at cost, adding the purchase saved the community money as the necessary purchase was made with federal pandemic relief funds that needed to be used or returned, rather than coming from the community’s coffers.
Bernard objected to the characterization of moving funds between accounts in bulk transactions as red flags that appear “to represent attempts at camouflaging or hiding the nature of such transactions,” as was stated in the executive summary.
Multiple ERU members claim they have been harassed or felt threatened since the community meeting unveiled the executive summary, with one citing death threats.
“It’s almost like a scene out of medieval times,” said Simon. “She’s a witch, she’s a witch, get the torches and pitchforks and let’s go get the witch. That’s what it seems like.”
At least three members of the ERU had their addresses posted on Facebook by way of screenshots of the public enterprise registry.
“I don’t believe the harassment at all. I don’t believe that, ” said John Harding, a community member who has been vocal about the need for accountability and who posted the registry information, which showed a notice of intent to dissolve the ERU was given on July 13, one day after the public meeting.
“I mean, everybody knows everybody here. It’s a small town. And I think probably it’s very shameful for them.”
Harding said his motivation has been to ensure those he feels abused the public trust are never able to hold positions of authority in the future.
“I am disappointed that (some) community members did not see all of the work that we accomplished and were so quick to judge us,” said ERU operations manager Christine Meilleur. “I have always had good work ethics and I take pride in that. The disparaging remarks of ‘thief’ or ‘they committed fraud’ have left me in disbelief.
“We worked so hard to keep our community safe at the cost of our health and our families’ well-being, and this is the thanks that we get.”
This item reprinted with permission from The Eastern Door, Kahnawake, Quebe