Federal expense audit unfair, former Manitoba chief says

A former Manitoba aboriginal leader accused by federal auditors of squandering thousands of dollars on travel and questionable expenses says he is being unfairly targeted.

Murray Clearsky, former grand chief of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, says he has receipts

Grand Chief Terrance Nelson and former grand chief Murray Clearsky address the media in Winnipeg on Monday. (Marianne Klowak/CBC)

A former Manitoba grand chief accused by federal auditors of squandering thousands of dollars on travel and questionable expenses says he is being unfairly targeted for political reasons.

Murray Clearsky, former head of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, says he has receipts for many of the expenses and can justify them. But he was never given a chance to repay the money before he was ousted from the organization, he says, and never got to explain the expenses to federal auditors.

"I've been a leader for my community for 25 years. Not once have I ever stolen anything — money —anything," he told a news conference Monday.

"I ended up losing my family over all this. I'm down big time. It's caused me a lot of grief. I'm barely hanging on to my mortgage."

In a letter to the organization, the Aboriginal Affairs Department said forensic auditors found $261,000 in questionable spending — just over half the federal funding the organization receives. The letter highlights almost $39,000 withdrawn on a debit card during a trip to Minneapolis, as well as more than $5,000 racked up during a trip to Las Vegas.

It also points to a $9,570 retroactive pay increase given to Clearsky, which the auditors say he wasn't entitled to, as well as to unearned vacation pay. The letter also alleges former chief of staff Michael Bear submitted just over $10,000 in travel claims that don't match up with his cellphone records.

Clearsky was elected grand chief of the organization in September 2012 and removed last October when the allegations surfaced. He said he has been given a meeting with the auditors to go through his expenses.

Current Grand Chief Terrance Nelson said the federal government is using audits to target aboriginal organizations that are seen as unfriendly. He pointed to a federal audit that was conducted when he was chief of Roseau River First Nation, released just a week before his re-election.

"The government of Canada is somewhat like an octopus," Nelson said. "It has so many arms. Some arms are trying to help us up and some other arms are just beating us up."

The organization has "tightened up a lot of things" and is determined to be transparent, Nelson said. Any expenses that can't be explained will be repaid by the organization, he added.

"These are nothing but allegations."

Aboriginal Affairs did not make anyone available for an interview, but minister Bernard Valcourt's office emailed a statement confirming an audit of the organization is underway.

"Any misuse of taxpayers dollars is entirely inappropriate," the email said. "Should (Aboriginal Affairs) find indications of criminal wrongdoing, the information will be turned over to policing authorities."

The department also confirmed it is conducting an audit of another Manitoba aboriginal organization, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc., which represents some of the province's poorest communities. Grand Chief David Harper has been criticized for allegedly spending his organization's cash on guitars and trips with his girlfriend.

Harper couldn't be reached for comment Monday, but has said he welcomes an audit. He has said the guitars were bought as gifts for a Christmas party and not for his own personal use. Harper also said he does travel with his girlfriend, but any extra costs are deducted from his paycheque.

"(The deparment) received allegations that federal funding provided to Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. was not being used for intended purposes," Aboriginal Affairs spokeswoman Michelle Perron said in an email.

"The government takes allegations and complaints of misuse of taxpayer dollars very seriously and is committed to ensuring that they are being directed toward the purpose for which they are intended."