Tempers flare after audit of pandemic spending in Mohawk community

Former chief and council don’t like the way they were targeted by the independent audit

The Mohawk community of Kanesatake is at an impasse regarding the results of an independent forensic audit of pandemic spending.

The new chief and council – who have been in power for under a year – commissioned an audit to find out how emergency funding to the community was spent.

The former grand chief says everything was done according to the rules.

When band council elections came around last summer, a new crop of candidates promised to investigate  pandemic spending if voted in.

Jeremy Tomlinson was one of the councillors who took office in July 2021 and initiated the independent audit process.

“I had conducted a preliminary examination of the financial situation relating to the pandemic response,” Tomlinson told APTN News.

According to Tomlinson, who is now executive director of the Kanesatake Health Centre, the new council retained an independent audit firm to look into spending by the now-disbanded Emergency Response Unit or ERU.

Audit firm 

APTN contacted the audit firm Williams, Meaden and Moore for more information on how the forensic audit was conducted, but didn’t hear back before publication.

APTN received the summary report of the audit’s findings, which was also released to the community in a public meeting.

Tomlinson says mechanisms for accountability require action.

“We really need to invest time, effort and resources to bring these mechanisms in place,” he said in an interview.

According to the audit document, the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake and the Kanesatake Health Centre received nearly $4.9 million in pandemic assistance from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) between April 2020 and July 2021.

The independent auditing firm found approximately 40 per cent of the total amount allocated for salaries and the hiring of casual help went to three people in upper management positions.

In the audit summary, a review of $1.4 million of expenses found 35 per cent of transactions were “paid personally” by ERU members on their credit cards and “reimbursed without formal expense reports.”

Journal entries

The auditing firm also noted that “several journal entries were recorded to move expenses from one department to another,” which “appears to represent attempts at camouflaging or hiding the nature of such transactions.”

But the team targeted by the audit is questioning the process, and the choice to release only a portion of the total findings to the community.

“It stinks from beginning to end,” former Kanesatake grand chief Serge Otsi Simon told APTN.

Simon, and eight former members of the ERU, deny any wrongdoing.

In a 15-page rebuttal document released last week, the ERU called council’s audit “a one-sided and self-serving, incomplete document that does not accurately portray the situation.”

According to the ERU, salary bases and pandemic “top-offs” – or bonuses allocated to council chiefs when they take on additional responsibilities outside the scope of their daily work – are determined by the federal government.

“The amounts varied, but the average hourly rate was approximately the same compared to professionals doing similar tasks in neighboring communities and organizations,” states the ERU’s rebuttal document.

Pandemic funds

All pandemic funds allocated to the community, according to Simon and the former ERU, were also vetted and approved by the federal government.

According to the ERU, transactions made off-books or on personal credit cards, were made only when buying products needed immediately or on back-order from suppliers.

“The measures used were an example of using unconventional, albethey legal, methods to achieve a positive outcome,” the ERU team said in its statement.

“Without these measures, basic materials like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other products needed for pandemic management would not have been available to our community.”

Simon insists that all pandemic spending would have been included in the routine audits council is subject to, but he feels the new team jumped the gun by ordering an independent audit.

“They could’ve presented this in another way, and let band members determine for themselves,” Simon explained in an interview with APTN.

“These were separate funding allocations under the federal government to fight COVID. They were not the community’s money, like band support that we get under our contribution agreement. These were completely separate.”

Privacy concerns

ISC said it is “aware of allegations and complaints brought forward regarding the misuse of COVID-19 related funds provided by the department,” but could not disclose which communities were implicated due to privacy concerns.

Of the audit in Kanesatake, ISC said the department was “previously made aware of concerns, and is taking appropriate actions.”

A spokesperson for ISC confirmed via email the total amount allocated to Kanesatake for the April 2020 to July 2021 period was $5.1 million – nearly $300,000 more than the amount outlined in the audit documents.

ISC confirmed the financial review in Kanesatake was done independently and explained the end game of an independent audit – or a government-led audit – is often the same.

“In situations where the allegations are found not to have merit, the case is closed and no further audit work is conducted,” according to ISC’s emailed response to APTN.

“Should the Department find indications of criminal wrongdoing, the information is turned over to the appropriate policing authority.”

Investigators with the Surete du Quebec told APTN a complaint was filed “in connection with an allegation of improper use of pandemic funds.”

However, “as this is an active investigation, [the SQ] will not comment further on the nature of the investigation, its progress, and the action taken by our police officers,” said a media relations officer.

Kanesatake’s Grand Chief Victor Bonspille told APTN he is open to releasing the full audit report if it’s requested by community members, but not while a police investigation is underway.

“I just really want accountability here,” Bonspille said. “Kanesatake deserves a lot better than what they were dealt during the pandemic.”

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