Red River College review stings ex-president's expense claims

An extensive government review has revealed poor management and questionable spending practices at Red River College in Winnipeg.
Students at Red River College are hoping for more transparency after a damning government report revealed mismanagement of the college's ex-president's expenses. 1:44

An extensive government review has revealed poor management and questionable spending practices at Red River College in Winnipeg.

In particular, former president Stephanie Forsyth's expense claims revealed "weaknesses in compliance and integrity," according to the report, made public on Wednesday.

Some of her claims were not approved by the colleges board of governors, some were not signed by her, and others were missing supporting documentation, the review found, noting Forsyth circumvented the board approval process for expenses by reviewing and authorizing some of her own expenses, which were claimed by other staff.

The review — taking aim at executive expense claims, contract management practices, financial reporting and human resource management practices at the college — was done after revelations Forsyth had filed expense claims for golf shoes, ballet tickets and other items.

"It is quite concerning to see how the expense accounts had been used and, quite frankly, abused. It's a misuse of public trust." Education and Advanced Learning Minister Peter Bjornson told reporters.

Police investigating marble matter

In October, it was also reported that Forsyth installed some of the marble from the renovation of the Union Bank Tower into her private home.

On Wednesday, Red River College officials said they have forwarded that matter to the police.

“As of yesterday, the board made the decision to engage Winnipeg Police to undertake a review of the allegations," Lloyd Schreyer, chair of the RRC board of governors, stated in a news release.

Stephanie Forsyth stepped down as Red River College president in August after four years at the helm and just as the provincial review was starting. (CBC)
"The board looked into this to the best of its ability but determined we do not possess the necessary legal tools to adequately conclude the investigation. The board will await the results.

"At this juncture, it is not appropriate to discuss this further until the review is complete and conclusive.”

The board is still in the process of searching for a new president but Wednesday's report will ensure better internal controls when that person takes over.

"The last four years does not accurately reflect the 76-year history of this college," Schreyer told reporters.

"In the course of human life and human endeavour, you are going to find people from time to time that stretch the limits."

Some Red River students in Winnipeg told CBC News they hope for more administrative transparency in light of the report.

"I'm just glad that not even the president is immune to investigation," Tyago Furtado, a graphic design student, said Wednesday evening.

"It was one bad egg, I guess," said Erin Debooy, a creative communications student.

Meals, entertainment and a trip to France

The review of Forsyth's expense claims covered the period of September 2010 to April 2014, during which time she claimed $14,047 in meals and entertainment. 

Out of 52 meal claims, 42 did not include a list of attendees or any detail of the topic discussed during the meal. That includes $514 of food and beverages for five events hosted at the president’s home, where the specific business purpose was not documented, the report states.

The review also found Forsyth and two other staff visited France — at a cost of more than $11,500 — in an effort to have the college join a European culinary association. The review says RRC is the only Canadian member of the institution and it's not clear why membership and the trip were deemed necessary.

As well, college officials expensed more than $2,200 for restaurant meals on three consecutive nights when they were interviewing candidates for an executive position, the report states.

The provincial government says Red River College is still trying to recover money that was inappropriately spent by Forsyth. It's still not clear how much public money was mismanaged. 

Staff departures

The report also noted personnel issues under Forsyth's watch.

During the review period, 16 "executive/excluded" staff members — vice-presidents, senior management, and administrative assistants — left RRC. Of those, eight were mutual separations of employment (terminations with severance packages) that cost the college more than $639,000.

There were also six retirements, one resignation and one person whose contract ended.

In the five years prior to Forsyth being hired, there was just one mutual separation of employment for a staff member in an executive/excluded position. 

Union Bank Tower

The review also found poor management of the multi-million-dollar renovation to the Union Bank Tower, which RRC converted into the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute — a ​culinary school, restaurant and student residence.

The cost of the project went from $22.5 million to $37.5 million and the opening date of September 2011 was delayed to January 2013.

The review of Red River College took aim at executive expense claims, contract management practices, financial reporting and human resource management practices. (CBC)
"Government expects individuals entrusted with public funds to be responsible stewards of those funds. Any misuse of those resources constitutes a betrayal of the public trust," Bjornson stated in a press release​.

"When allegations regarding the former president of the college were brought to the department's attention, we took decisive action and requested a full review of its financial and human resource practices."

The report makes 45 recommendations, which Bjornson said RRC has accepted, to improve policies and procedures to ensure appropriate spending and financial oversight.

Bjornson has requested a progress report from RRC on the implementation of the review's recommendations by the end of the current fiscal year.

"Red River College is critical to the economic well-being of our province and provides crucial skills training and education to Manitobans," he said.

"Our government is committed to supporting the college so it can continue to be part of a strong post-secondary education system."

Statement from Red River College

Today, Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning released its report detailing a review of specific financial and human resource practices at Red River College for the period of September 2010 to May 2014.

Red River College accepts the findings and recommendations contained in the report, and the College has been taking action to improve the financial, human resources and contracting processes at the College.

“It’s important to highlight that this report is not a reflection of the College as a whole,” said David Rew, Interim President, Red River College. “Red River College has proudly and effectively served its students and the Province of Manitoba for more than 76 years. Red River College continues to be an excellent school and is focused on continuing to drive Manitoba’s economy and creating skilled graduates.”

Red River College will work in partnership with the Province to ensure that, by the end of the College’s fiscal year, June 30, 2015 all of the recommendations in the report will be addressed.

“We will address our challenges and continue to be accountable to staff, students and public,” said Lloyd Schreyer, Chair, Red River College Board of Governors.  “Our stakeholders expect the best from us and we intend to deliver. From now until the end of the fiscal year we will align our work to ensure all of the recommendations are addressed and reported on by June 30, 2015.

Red River College extends its sincere appreciation to the many College employees who cooperated with the Province throughout this review process, and thanks them for their professionalism, openness, and integrity.

On mobile? Read the government report here

With files from The Canadian Press


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