An ex-law dean accused of embezzling more than a half-million dollars from the University of Manitoba asked an employee to set up a Swiss bank account as a payee and, on another occasion, told her to “stop asking questions” about his expense claims.

The professional disciplinary hearing of Jonathan Black-Branch heard from two witnesses — both of whom worked under him and were responsible for processing receipts at Robson Hall — when proceedings resumed Tuesday.

“I was starting to get very suspicious of him… I was in a very bad place; I was very aware of it,” Chenise Robert told a panel at the Law Society of Manitoba’s downtown office, recalling the situation she found herself in as the law school’s financial assistant in 2019-2020.

Black-Branch, who specializes in international law and nuclear treaties, is facing a breach of integrity charge resulting from allegations he misused funds while employed at the U of M from 2016 to 2020.

The legal profession’s watchdog alleges Black-Branch — a former bencher (a member of the governing board of directors) who is currently a non-practising member of the society — inappropriately used public money to register for U.S. Ivy League school courses to bolster his resumé and repeatedly cover personal dinner and drink tabs.

Robert said she became concerned about the dean’s spending habits around November 2019 when she picked up on a pattern in the bills he submitted from the Manitoba Club.

The chits often included a code with a customer tally that contradicted his claims about the number of people in attendance, she said, adding she began writing question marks on receipts she sent through to a central administration office in the hopes someone would flag them because she felt uncomfortable confronting him.

“Whenever I asked him questions when I had meetings with him, I could sense that sense of agitation and rambling. He tried to divert my attention to other places and he was very good at doing that,” she said.

She described a number of unusual requests she received, including when her then-superior directed her to create a Swiss bank account — which was linked to an organization he ran, the International Society of Law and Nuclear Diplomacy (better known as ISLAND) — a vendor.

The hearing was told that Black-Branch often filed expenses via invoices rather than university credit card statements, in turn leveraging an electronic expense system at U of M that circumvented the need to receive “one-over-one” approval from a supervisor.

In one case, part-way through the 2019-2020 school year, Black-Branch began panicking about a telecommunications provider invoice Robert said she had already paid and he became agitated when she sought more information to make sense of the situation.

Both she and Marcia Kort, former executive assistant to the law dean, spoke about the tense situation during Tuesday’s public proceedings at the law society’s St. Mary Avenue office.

“He was travelling at the time, and he phoned me and said: ‘Just tell Chenise to stop asking questions; pay the bill,’” Kort told the panel.

Robert said the directive was relayed and she took it to be “a threat.”

While noting she was not the whistleblower who tipped off senior administrators and sparked the internal investigation that led to Black-Branch’s spring 2020 departure, the financial assistant said she considered coming forward at about that time.

The defendant, who currently lives in the U.K., has not participated in any public hearing, either in person or virtually.

Last week, Black-Branch asked the panel to dismiss the hearing indefinitely due to vague mental-health concerns. His request — the latest in several such appeals submitted with limited supporting documentation, and which have repeatedly postponed proceedings — was denied Tuesday.

The hearing is scheduled to continue today and Thursday in front of the two lawyers and one public representative on the panel.

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 21, 2023 at 21:03

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Winnipeg, Manitoba
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