Sandy Bay chief at loss for words after years-long delay in lawyer criminal investigation
Neither police nor the Crown explain 4½-year time gap
The chief of Sandy Bay First Nation is furious after learning it took nearly five years for police to interview a lawyer who misappropriated almost $1 million from residential school survivors.
"I'm at a loss for words. I don't know how to say it without swearing," Chief Lance Roulette told CBC News.
Howard Tennenhouse was disbarred in 2012 by the Law Society of Manitoba after it found he misappropriated nearly $1 million in disallowed fees from residential school survivors. The money was later recouped in full and Tennenhouse says he has not committed a crime.
However, the law society's rules require it to refer cases of misappropriation to police. A record provided to CBC by the law society shows that it first referred Tennenhouse's case to Winnipeg police in 2012, shortly after he was disbarred.
But Tennenhouse said police investigators didn't contact him until nearly five years later.
"I was quite shocked when I got a call from the police some months ago, very recently," he said. "My natural question was, why now and not five or six years ago?"
"Five years is a long time," Roulette said. "A lot of our members who have used Mr. Tennenhouse have either passed on or … don't really have the capacity to respond to what he has done."
Roulette blames the delay on one thing. "Incompetence. The system itself seems to be incompetent in certain areas, especially when it's serving the public interest."
The Law Society of Manitoba provided a timeline showing it first delivered a copy of the decision file to then-police chief Keith McCaskill on April 19, 2012.
The Law Society then sent a second copy of the paperwork to Winnipeg police in November of 2012.
The next record on the society's timeline is more than four years and two police chiefs later when, in fall 2016, the Crown's Special Prosecutions Unit asked the law society for copies of the documents it had sent to police in 2012.
Started in 2016
A Winnipeg Police Service spokesperson confirmed police received the Tennenhouse file in 2012 and their investigation into the case began in 2016.
Neither the police nor the Crown have provided an explanation for the passage of time since the law society first sent the file for investigation.
But police public information officer Const. Robert Carver said that although the law society notifies police of its discipline decisions, those notices do not necessarily trigger a police investigation.
"Complainants to the law society may not (and in fact, regularly do not) want to proceed with a police complaint," Carver said in a statement.
Trevor Farrow, a legal ethics expert at Osgoode Hall law school at Toronto's York University, said he was surprised by the chronology.
"It seems surprising to me that it's taken four years between the initial contact to police and now," he said.
"Should they take it seriously now? Absolutely. Should they have taken it seriously in 2012? Yes they should have. Why has it taken so long? I don't know," said Farrow.
Farrow, who has published research on the settlement process for survivors of sexual and physical abuse at Indigenous residential schools, said there's widespread concern over the way some lawyers have handled settlement claims.
"There has been a concern about certain lawyers, and that has obviously reached a critical mass where the police, the media and the law societies are all taking it seriously," said Farrow.
Beyond providing the chronology in the Tennenhouse file, law society CEO Kristin Dangerfield declined to comment on what police did with the case.
"The law society does not handle public prosecutions and so we are unable to comment on the steps taken by the authorities following the receipt of a report from the law society about lawyer misconduct," Dangerfield said in a statement.
"Where that investigation leads to information that a lawyer has been involved in a criminal offence, or that there are grounds to believe that a lawyer has engaged in criminal activity, the law society will take steps to protect the public and will report the matter to the police. We do so pursuant to our statutory responsibility while at the same time ensuring that the solicitor client privilege of affected clients is preserved," Dangerfield wrote.
Tennenhouse told CBC he met with police in person after they contacted him and does not expect charges to be laid. "We shook hands, and I'm very confident that will be the end of it," he said.
"Obviously I would have preferred to have dealt with the matter six years ago. Do I feel ambushed? Yes. But I honestly don't believe that anybody did it intentionally," Tennenhouse said. "I don't know if that makes me feel any better."
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