Union feared political controversy after former NDP staffer's fraud was uncovered: witness
Heather Grant-Jury, previously principal secretary under Premier Greg Selinger, facing sentence for fraud
Union management feared a possible political blow-up three years ago, when they uncovered a series of fraudulent expenses charged by a former union director and NDP staffer, a Manitoba court heard Friday.
The expenses were discovered in 2015 on the business credit card of Heather Grant-Jury, who pleaded guilty in January to fraud over $5,000.
"There was definitely sensitivity around that and we were extremely concerned the amount of attention this particular situation would cause," Beatrice Bruske, secretary-treasurer with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, said at Grant-Jury's sentencing hearing Friday.
Grant-Jury previously worked as director of education and training with the union and served as principal secretary to former Manitoba premier Greg Selinger for five months.
On Thursday, Bruske told court Grant-Jury confessed she had struggled with a gambling addiction when confronted about the misspending.
The union fired her in early 2016 after a forensic audit revealed scores of apparent personal expenses charged to her union credit card, which was meant to be used for business purchases.
Following January's guilty plea, she was back in court Thursday and Friday for a sentencing hearing.
Crown attorneys Donald Melnyk and Peter Edgett are seeking jail time. They believe Grant-Jury defrauded a union trust fund of $160,000 between May 2011 and December 2015.
She has admitted to dozens of fraudulent expenses but has only taken credit for $66,000 in purchases, $10,000 of which has already been paid back, her lawyer, Zilla Jones, said Thursday.
$38K in Safeway transactions
The incidents stem from scores of personal purchases she racked up, many for Safeway gift cards, according to union president Jeff Traeger and Bruske. Grant-Jury spent $38,000 in transactions at Safeway in the first seven months of 2014, Melnyk said.
She left her post with the union to serve as Selinger's principal secretary between November 2014 and April 2015. No fraudulent Safeway purchases were noted on her union credit card during that time, but she admitted to others from Foodfare, court heard.
The union had openly endorsed Selinger's re-election campaign in 2015, and Traeger was the planning to co-chair the campaign, along with Grant-Jury.
"Heather was a very valuable employee. She was a confidante of mine," Traeger testified.
She resigned from the re-election campaign at the request of Selinger's chief of staff, after the union reported the allegations. Traeger also stepped down from his role as the co-chair of the committee.
"I resigned that position because of this ... damage to the reputation," he said. "It was a difficult time for us politically."
'Weren't feeding an army'
It wasn't until December 2015 that a pattern suspicious spending on her union business credit card came to light.
Grant-Jury had been filing expense forms for charges with budget account numbers that didn't correspond to the purchases, court heard. She was turning in receipts with the section itemizing the purchases torn off, leaving only the total spent, date and location on the receipt, court heard.
Safeway only keeps detailed records of receipts in its systems for six months, so the forensic audit that unfolded in early 2016 was only able to recover itemized receipts for part of 2015, Traeger said.
She had started gambling because of the amount of stress she was under in that role. It was a difficult time for government.- UFCW Local 832 president Jeff Traeger
Others were recovered from "mom and pop" gift shops and other small stores where she racked up "unjustified expenses," he added.
Many purchases happened in the summer or outside of any known training, programming or regular course hours, Traeger said.
"It became immediately clear that the expenses ... were not legitimate business expenses," Traeger said.
"We weren't feeding an army. We were feeding at the most 15 to 20 people."
Bruske and Traeger confronted Grant-Jury in a meeting in late 2015. They presented her with a series of itemized receipts from 2015 they obtained from Safeway and other businesses where Grant-Jury made purchases late that year.
"Heather became quite upset and she had indicated she had a gambling problem," Traeger said.
"She had started gambling because of the amount of stress she was under in that role. It was a difficult time for government."
The union reported the fraud allegations to the NDP around the same time they approached police and hired a firm to conduct a forensic audit of Grant-Jury's credit card use.
Pattern pointed to fraud: Traeger
Jones questioned why none of the years of inappropriate purchases raised alarm prior to December 2015, when a union accountant brought her concerns to management.
Bruske conceded that Grant-Jury never strayed outside of her anticipated budgets between 2011-15.
Jones also argued Traeger has no way of knowing what all those Safeway expenses were used for, and it's possible Grant-Jury purchased food for students and staff at the training centre without him knowing.
He said while he was kept apprised "on the macro, not the micro" level of expenses, the pattern still points to fraud.
Grant-Jury is expected to testify when the sentencing hearing resumes in the new year.