'Fall from grace': Former Selinger aide sentenced to 15 months, ordered to pay back $131K in defrauded funds

In a decision reached on Thursday, Justice Ryan Rolston determined Heather Grant-Jury defrauded the union she once worked for out of tens of thousands of dollars between March, 2012, and December, 2015, according to court documents.

Heather Grant-Jury, previously top aide to premier Greg Selinger, pleaded guilty to fraud two years ago

Heather Grant-Jury, seen here in a 2004 photo, was once Premier Greg Selinger's principal secretary. She has been ordered to pay her former employer more than $131,000 in defrauded funds and sentenced to 15 months of incarceration. (Radio-Canada/CBC)

A Manitoba provincial court judge has ordered a former aide to ex-premier Greg Selinger to pay back more than $131,000 in defrauded funds and sentenced her to 15 months in jail.

In a decision delivered Thursday, Justice Ryan Rolston determined Heather Grant-Jury defrauded the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which she once worked for, out of tens of thousands of dollars over nearly four years.

Grant-Jury's defence lawyer attributed her client's overzealous expenses to a closet gambling addiction.

"I think this case is very tragic," Zilla Jones said. "The judge called it a 'fall from grace' in court and I think that's exactly what it is. A fall from grace."

Grant-Jury pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000 in January 2018.

Her lawyer described her as a "well-placed" individual who was "very connected" in her community and as principal secretary to the previous NDP government.

"Very unfortunately, she developed this problem with gambling, which was a way that she dealt with some of her stress and grief of this high position and some losses she had in her life," Jones said.

Crown attorneys Donald Melnyk and Peter Edgett argued in court that she racked up roughly $160,000 in fraudulent charges from May 2011 to December 2015. The prosecution team declined to comment on Thursday's decision.

Two years in court

During court testimony in March 2019, Grant-Jury admitted to making fraudulent charges on her business credit card while working for the UFCW before she was fired in 2016.

Receipts described in court last year include thousands spent on gift cards, groceries and personal items. Charges include a leather tote, a bracelet and a dollhouse that Grant-Jury said she purchased fraudulently in order to donate to the Christmas Cheer Board.

"Public funds were lost, union funds were lost, and people suffered as a result of her actions, which she acknowledges," Grant-Jury's lawyer said.

Heather Grant-Jury was NDP Premier Greg Selinger's principal secretary. (UFCW Local 832)

The two-year gap between her guilty plea and sentencing was due to the fact the court needed to determine how much money was involved before a sentence could be delivered. Jones alleges shoddy record-keeping on both sides contributed to the lengthy court process.

The union training centre allowed Grant-Jury free rein, and she was unable to access any records after she lost her job, said Jones. The union had to go back and identify what was legitimate spending, and what was not.

Justice Rolston determined that Grant-Jury converted $131,097.04 of her employer's money to her own use between March 2012 and December 2015.

Jones maintained the court's calculations are higher than what the defence team felt was fair.

"She's very remorseful. She's very broken," Jones said. "She's a shell of her former self."

The stolen money was put into video lottery terminals.

"She didn't use [it] to buy a home or a car or something she could sell," Jones said, adding that now her client has no income and is struggling to make ends meet while scrambling to get out of debt and pay what she owes.

In his decision, Justice Rolston noted that while Grant-Jury was liable to the union for the money she took, she "does not have significant prospects for restitution."

Grant-Jury has sought treatment to deal with her gambling problem, and has paid back what she could afford, Jones said. "But the funds aren't there.… They can't get money she doesn't have."

Grant-Jury still owes $120,000.

In his decision, Rolston noted that deterrence and denunciation are key considerations in breach of trust cases.

Grant-Jury is a "low risk" to reoffend, with solid prospects for rehabilitation and a strong support network, he wrote.

Jones noted she doesn't believe incarceration is the best fit for her client, but existing case law indicates jail time may help prevent others from following her path.

With files from Aidan Geary and Bryce Hoye