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'Not once have I ever stole'

Ousted grand chief defends spending

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press
�I ended up losing my family over all this,� ousted grand chief Murray Clearsky says.

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Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press �I ended up losing my family over all this,� ousted grand chief Murray Clearsky says.

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.

Questionable spending

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada launched an audit of the Southern Chiefs' Organization's finances last fall after the ouster of grand chief Murray Clearsky. In a letter to the SCO dated July 25, auditors laid out their preliminary findings, detailing $261,587 in "inappropriate or questionable" transactions. The auditors were seeking to verify facts and asked SCO for any additional documentation that could explain the improper transactions. Those transactions included:

$32,372, debit card -- Between July and September, auditors said Clearsky made "unsupported" purchases and cash withdrawals from the SCO's account using a debit card. Much of the money was spent during the treaty rights caravan to Alberta and a trip to Minneapolis. Clearsky said several others also had access to the debit card but have so far not been singled out.

$9,570, retroactive pay increase -- Clearsky and chief of staff Mike Bear misrepresented the effective date of Clearsky's pay increase and obtained a retroactive payment to which the chief was not entitled.

$3,530, prepaid credit card -- The SCO gave Bear a prepaid credit card when he and Clearsky travelled to Toronto for a national meeting. Both had already received travel advances for the trip. Bear did not submit receipts for purchases made on the prepaid credit card.

$53,328, traditional-healing expenditures -- Traditional healing is not an employee benefit offered by SCO or funded by the federal government but SCO paid healers to help staff and former grand chiefs.

$4,975, payroll advances -- When Clearsky and Bear were terminated in October, pay advances had not been recouped.

$5,653, vacation pay -- Clearsky and Bear were paid for vacation time to which they were not entitled.

$27,510, travel claims -- Trips outside Canada must be approved by the SCO's finance committee. Clearsky travelled to Las Vegas and Minneapolis without proper approval and Bear made similar claims. Bear also made claims for travel that did not occur, as evidenced by cellphone records. A travel company was paid to book trips that were not authorized by the finance committee.

$25,911, purchase of a vehicle -- Auditors say federal money was used to buy a vehicle for former grand chief Morris Shannacappo but was never recorded as an SCO asset.

$1,748, car insurance -- SCO paid for Clearsky's personal car insurance.

$96,980, labour-relations payouts -- A series of harassment allegations and labour-relations issues, some involving Bear, resulted in huge payouts that could have been avoided with proper management oversight.

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.

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