Manitoba

Former top NDP staffer blamed gambling addiction for fraudulent union expense claims, witness says

An official who worked as a top aide to former Manitoba premier Greg Selinger blamed a gambling addiction for thousands of dollars in fraudulent expense claims she charged while she was a union employee, a Manitoba court heard Thursday.

Heather Grant-Jury pleaded guilty to fraud over $5K in January 2018

Heather Grant-Jury, pictured in this 2004 photo, was once Premier Greg Selinger's principal secretary. She pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000 in January, and prosecutors are seeking a jail sentence. (Radio-Canada/CBC)

An official who worked as a top aide to former Manitoba premier Greg Selinger blamed a gambling addiction for thousands of dollars in fraudulent expense claims she charged while she was a union employee, a Manitoba court heard Thursday.

Heather Grant-Jury, once Selinger's principal secretary, pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000 in January. The Crown is seeking a jail sentence for her.

Grant-Jury used a credit card meant for union education business to pay for personal expenses between May 2011 and December 2015. She expensed the claims to the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, where she previously worked as director of education and training.

"There was significant amount of trust given to Ms. Grant-Jury in terms of her being the director," Beatrice Bruske, the union's secretary-treasurer, testified Thursday at Grant-Jury's sentencing hearing.

"It was assumed, wrongly, obviously, that those were transactions that were required."

WATCH: A Feb. 10, 2016 report on the review into Grant-Jury's expenses

Heather Grant-Jury, the woman who fought for Premier Greg Selinger behind the scenes when his top ministers rebelled, is now under review. 2:03

Grant-Jury appeared before provincial court Judge Ryan Rolston on Thursday. Crown attorneys Donald Melnyk and Peter Edgett maintain Grant-Jury expensed about $160,000 in fraudulent credit card claims, but she and her lawyer, Zilla Jones, say it was more like $60,000.

She has already repaid about $10,000, Jones told court.

Grant-Jury took a leave of absence to work for Selinger from November 2014 to April 2015, returning to the union afterward.

Signs of fraud

An accountant with the union raised concerns in December 2015 after a period during which Grant-Jury turned in receipts with the itemized transaction sections torn off — which is against union policy. No rationale was provided as to why.

Court heard all that was visible were the date, location and total amount of the purchase on the receipts she turned over.  

Further digging also revealed unusual transactions on the education centre program director's business credit card.

She was extremely distraught, and it was very difficult because we had all worked with Heather for a very long time.- UFCW secretary-treasurer Beatrice Bruske

That employee told union president Jeff Traeger and Bruske, who oversees financial expenses as the union's secretary-treasurer, that Grant-Jury had borrowed her union credit card during the period of the suspicious charges.

Traeger and Bruske first confronted Grant-Jury in a December 2015 meeting.

Heather Grant-Jury, once Premier Greg Selinger's principal secretary, pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000 in January. Prosecutors are seeking a jail sentence. (CBC)

Grant-Jury broke down in that meeting and said she had been struggling with a gambling addiction over the past two years and sought out counselling on two occasions, Bruske said.

She couldn't explain why some of the torn receipts she expensed included the wrong budget department number, Bruske said.

"She was extremely distraught, and it was very difficult because we had all worked with Heather for a very long time," Bruske told court.

Fired amid forensic audit

Grant-Jury and the other employee were suspended pending an investigation.

The UFCW fired Grant-Jury in January 2016, after the union conducted a forensic audit and brought the issue to police.

The union also reported the allegations to Selinger, whose chief of staff called for Grant-Jury to resign from the NDP re-election planning committee and to vacate her seat on the board of Manitoba Public Insurance.

That union's audit revealed more than 300 expenses were flagged as suspicious, including 16 Safeway purchases totalling over $4,000 in June and almost $7,000 in March of 2014 alone, court heard.

"None of those appeared to be necessary," Bruske said.

UFCW Local 832 president Jeff Traeger, seen here in a 2016 file photo, stepped down from his role as the co-chair of Greg Selinger's re-election committee after the allegations against Grant-Jury emerged. 'It was a difficult time for us politically,' he testified Friday at her sentencing hearing. (CBC)

By the time of the audit, the union had already paid off thousands of dollars in credit card bills.

Bruske said the auditors were unable to retrieve itemized receipts for all the purchases.

There was no need to question expenditures at the time, Bruske said, and it was in Grant-Jury's purview as director of training and education to occasionally buy small gifts for students and staff.

Thousands in Safeway gift cards

Crown attorney Melnyk spent hours walking Bruske through dozens of inappropriate transactions between 2011-15.

Bruske said they obtained original itemized receipts, for the most part from Safeway, and many appeared to be for personal groceries and hundreds of dollars in gift cards. More than one such 2015 Safeway expense exceeded $1,000, court heard.

Other transactions that year were for beauty products, purchases from a book store, hundreds of dollars at a Brandon-based gift shop and a $666 charge at a picture frame store. Another payment at Foodfare turned out to be for lottery tickets and cigarettes, Bruske said.

"There is no rationale or no reason for the amount of Safeway expenditures in that month," Bruske said.

Some expenses were on weekends or holidays. Some were classified as a "literacy expense" — one was for an English as an additional language instructor expenses over $2,000. Others were allegedly for union programing or training, when no such training or programming took place, Bruske said.

Not all charges improper: Grant-Jury

Grant-Jury has pleaded guilty to dozens of fraudulent transactions, court heard, though she disputes the offences go back as far as the Crown and union contend.

But Jones said it's possible many of the charges were for appropriate business expenses that just weren't reported properly. 

She pointed to at least three of Grant-Jury's 2015 expenses reported in a financial breakdown that were inaccurately classified as fraudulent.

"We have all these numbers, and where are they coming from if some of them are wrongly attributed?" Jones asked.

Bruske admitted the charges, some of which were for a gift basket for an event supported by the union, could be considered appropriate business expenses.  

Despite a few inaccuracies, Bruske remains confident the review of Grant-Jury's spending points to a pattern of fraud.

"I took great pains to go through page by page, event by event, to give the benefit of the doubt," she said.

Grant-Jury is expected to testify Friday, her lawyer said.

Heather Grant-Jury, once Selinger's principal secretary, pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000 in January. Now, a judge will consider what kind of sentence she deserves. 1:13

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.