Nunavut's chief coroner fired in part due to 'fraudulent activity' at YWCA, gov't says

The government also alleges Padma Suramala forged a document to appear as a court order in order to seize health records from the Qikiqtani General Hospital.

Padma Suramala filed a $1M wrongful dismissal suit against the government after she was fired in April

Padma Suramala was fired on April 25 after seven years as Nunavut's chief coroner. She's filed a $1 million wrongful dismissal suit against the government. It has filed its statement of defence, which alleges she didn't disclose her employment with the YWCA and she was involved in 'fraudulent activity' at the non-profit. (CBC)

The Nunavut government says it fired its chief coroner, Padma Suramala, in part because she was a "knowing participant in fraudulent activity involving the YWCA."

The government also alleges Suramala forged a document to appear as a court order in order to seize health records from the Qikiqtani General Hospital.

Suramala was fired on April 25 after seven years as Nunavut's chief coroner. She is suing the Nunavut government for $1 million in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. She alleges the Justice Department interfered in her work as the chief coroner, took steps to prevent her from releasing reports, and denied her access to a lawyer throughout the firing process.

None of Suramala's allegations, nor the Government of Nunavut's, have been proven in court.

In a statement of defence filed in the Nunavut Court of Justice on Friday, the government alleges Suramala was paid more than $24,000 in questionable payments from the YWCA, which were separate from her regular payroll from the non-profit.

The government also alleges Suramala never reported her employment with the YWCA, which is against government policy. In her statement of claim, Suramala said she did report it.

The Nunavut government launched a forensic audit into the YWCA Agvvik Nunavut in 2017. The results of that audit found questionable payments to Suramala, according to the statement of defence. (Nick Murray/CBC)

YWCA 'fraudulent activity'

In its statement of defence, the Nunavut government shed light on a 2017 audit it did of the YWCA Agvvik Nunavut society.

The society runs the two women shelters in Iqaluit, and receives about $2 million in public funding every year. 

In May 2017, CBC News reported on allegations of financial mismanagement within the YWCA. The anonymously leaked documents also went to two deputy ministers and the RCMP, the government noted in its statement.

Subsequent to the allegations going public, the government launched a forensic audit, handed the findings over to the RCMP, and the YWCA Agvvik's executive director was later fired.

The plaintiff was a knowing participant in fraudulent activity involving the YWCA or was wilfully blind to same.- Statement of defence

The results of the audit were never made public. The Mounties say the investigation is ongoing — but the statement of defence is the first time anyone has publicly alleged fraud within the YWCA.

The government says its audit identified an issue with payments made to six YWCA employees. It alleges Suramala was one of those six — she received 13 payments over 41 months, totalling $24,154.

The government alleges that in questioning Suramala about the payments, she indicated the money from 2014 was for a "girls club" and that other payments were from an employee of the YWCA whom Suramala lent money to.

The employee's name is not included in the statement.

"All the funds used to repay the alleged personal debt, and the remainder of the $24,154 total, were drawn from YWCA accounts, and not any employee's personal account," the statement of defence reads, also alleging Suramala couldn't explain why.

The statement said that the government concluded "that the plaintiff was a knowing participant in fraudulent activity involving the YWCA or was wilfully blind to same."

According to the statement of defence, Nunavut's deputy minister of justice Bill MacKay questioned Suramala about her employment with the YWCA. (David Gunn/CBC)

Didn't report outside work

The statement of defence goes on to allege that Suramala had not reported her employment with the YWCA to the government.

In October 2017, deputy justice minister Bill MacKay raised the issue with Suramala, asking if she had received prior approval to work there. Suramala replied that she had while in different positions and departments within the government, but also said that "she was so busy during 2016 and 2017 as chief coroner that there was no way she could divert her time to anything else," the statement reads.

The foregoing illustrates, at a minimum, a sustained pattern of dishonest behaviour by Ms.  Suramala.- Statement of defence

MacKay later said he had obtained a YWCA paystub, indicating she did work there. Suramala replied with a "disclosure of outside activity" form, and indicated she had worked at the YWCA in 2017.

"The foregoing illustrates, at a minimum, a sustained pattern of dishonest behaviour by Ms. Suramala," the statement of defence reads.

"Attempts by her to minimize her failure to report her outside activities by lying to the Deputy Minister, a failure to question large payments from a charitable organization for which she did little or no work and for which she denies generating invoices, and a failure to take issue with the fact that a personal loan was being repayed by a not-for-profit organization rather than the person to whom the loan was allegedly made."

Falsified court order

The government also alleges Suramala falsified a court order to get hospital records.

It says the Nunavut Coroner's Act requires a coroner to have a court warrant to seize original medical records from a hospital — it notes the generally accepted practice is to get copies, and leave originals in the hospitals, which wouldn't require a warrant.

In her statement of claim, Suramala argues it was a departmental policy, and not the law, that required her to get a warrant.

A file photo of Suramala. The government also alleges she falsified a court order to get hospital records. (Nick Murray/CBC)

The government alleges one of Suramala's staff entered the Qikiqtani General Hospital in January 2018, "with a warrant or a document that had been drafted and signed by Ms. Suramala which was meant to appear as though it was a warrant." 

"Ms. Suramala, or one of her staff members, crafted an unlawful order, presented it to hospital staff and indicated to them, or allowed them to believe, that it was a valid court order and seized the original records.

"This was a gross breach of trust and left the GN in the position where it could not trust Ms. Suramala to respect the laws of the territory. This misconduct, on its own and certainly when taken in conjunction with her deceit regarding the YWCA, amounted to just cause for her dismissal."

Gov't denies interfering in coroner's work

In her lawsuit, Suramala accused deputy minister MacKay of interfering in her work as coroner.

In its defence, the government denies MacKay ever prohibited her from releasing a report into domestic violence-related deaths, or that he rejected her findings into the cause of death of a government employee.

Suramala's lawyer Michael Penner said they'll investigate the government's allegations before responding to them.

"It does involve a third party, and that complicates things," Penner said, referring to the unknown YWCA employee. 

"The YWCA is not party to the litigation, so the access to those documents would not come through the regular routes. They aren't a governmental agency that I can use [the Access to Information Act] to produce their documents."

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Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked three Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.