Watson Lake shelter execs accused of financial mismanagement

Yukon's Department of Health and Social Services is auditing the organization that runs the Watson Lake women's shelter, following allegations of financial mismanagement made by a recent board director.

Yukon’s Department of Health and Social Services is auditing the organization that runs the Watson Lake women’s shelter, following allegations of financial mismanagement made by a recent board director.

Elisabeth Lexow, who was voted off the Help and Hope For Families Society board on Tuesday, points to charges on the society’s credit card for airline tickets, a sofa that may have ended up in the executive director’s house, and a trip to the hair salon.

As she tells it, the society’s bookkeeper and office manager raised concerns with her two months ago about such purchases.

Both staff members were dismissed from their jobs soon after, Lexow said.

One of them declined to comment and the other could not be reached.

After Lexow became vocal about her own concerns about the society’s spending, she said she faced pressure to stay quiet from the executive director, president and other board members leading to her dismissal this week.

“All of this has affected me in a big way,” she said.

“When I go to town I get glared and stared at. I’ve lost weight and my hair is falling out.

“It’s incredible stress. I don’t know if I’d have done this if I knew what was waiting for me. My whole life is on hold. It’s an experience no other board member should ever experience.”

Leading up to her dismissal, Lexow made repeated efforts to further investigate the society’s financial and personnel records.

Despite two orders from the Yukon’s registrar of societies, Fred Pretorius, to allow her to see these records, Lexow said she still hasn’t seen everything she requested.

Marilyn McCord, executive assistant to the board, said yesterday that the society will not comment because the issue is ongoing.

“Our intent is not to hide anything,” she said.

“We believe that everything will be declared. Everything will be addressed and we’ll take whatever actions we need in order to do that.”

Olive Cochrane, the society’s president, declined repeated interview requests made by the News this week.

But, in correspondence with Pretorius, she wrote that some honest mistakes were made but denied that any money was deliberately misspent.

She also wrote that since the dispute blew up, the society has since tightened up how it tracks expenditures.

Among the disputed credit card charges was the purchase of WestJet tickets to Saskatoon in July for $1,785.52 for Cochrane and her son.

Lexow said this purchase was presented to the board as a loan during a Sept. 19 meeting.

Cochrane, however, told Pretorius in an Oct. 27 letter that the tickets were a “gift and gesture of support” from the society after Cochrane’s sister passed away.

The society has offered similar support to community members in the past, Cochrane wrote.

Another purchase may have paid for a sofa that ended up in the home of the society’s executive director, Caron Statham.

In May, the society ordered three sofas from Sears totalling $1,211.62.

Two were intended for the shelter, while the third was ordered for Statham with the understanding she would pay back the society.

But a mix-up involving the order being cancelled and resubmitted may have resulted in the third sofa being charged to the society’s credit card, according to Cochrane’s letter to Pretorius.

“Caron is attempting to determine whether one couch was charged to her account,” Cochrane wrote.

“Should she determine that all three couches were charged to the Society, she will reimburse the Society, as it was her intent to purchase the couch independently.”

As for the charge for a $177.93 appointment at Gorgeous Hair in Whitehorse, Cochrane wrote that it was a simple mistake.

Statham’s bank card and the society’s credit card are identical except for the name and number, Cochrane wrote.

Lexow said she isn’t satisfied with these explanations.

Neither, apparently, is the society’s main funder, the Department of Health and Social Services.

In October, the department hired an audit firm to investigate the society’s “financial compliance, examination of internal controls and accountability mechanisms” for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, according to Patricia Living, a spokesperson for the department.

Living said the department and representatives from the audit firm have already met with the board.

It is still unknown when the audit will be completed, she added.

The society’s board and executive director made an unsuccessful push to remove Lexow from the board in October.

Pretorius ended up cancelling the meeting, after concluding that adequate notice hadn’t been given.

The meeting was rescheduled to Nov. 18.

In an October letter, the president accused Lexow of having “acted and behaved in breach of the society’s board member code of conduct and the society’s procedures and policies.”

Lexow insists she was just fulfilling her duties as a director to ensure the society’s financial management was sound.

Yukon’s registrar of societies, twice ordered the board to release information to Lexow that she sought.

On Monday, Pretorius obtained an order from the Supreme Court of Yukon for them to comply.

Lexow went to the shelter the following day and made two more trips later in the week.

She said she’s been unable to get access to all of the records listed in the court order, such as board member files, executive director’s reports and a list of service providers.

The society’s president initially maintained that it couldn’t allow Lexow to access records because of the audit underway.

Pretorius concluded this rationale didn’t hold up, according to his correspondence with the society.

Directors, under the Societies Act, are entitled to access financial records when reasonable warning is given in advance, and Pretorius wrote that health officials never forbid directors to review these documents, as the society claimed.

The society also maintained that personnel records are confidential.

Lexow wanted to review the records of the dismissed staff, with their permission.

The registrar concluded that Lexow should have been allowed to see these records.

The society wrote that its lawyer and the Yukon Employees Union say otherwise.

Lexow first unsuccessfully tried to view records at the office during the evening of Oct. 25.

Staff ended up calling the RCMP, after a phone discussion with the executive director.

Statham wrote in a letter to the board following the incident that Lexow’s presence risked breaching the confidentiality of the shelter’s clients.

The board also refused to comply with a second order to grant Lexow access to documents in early November.

Cochrane wrote in correspondence to the board that Lexow hadn’t given their staff adequate notice for when she wanted to view the records.

Then Pretorius sought his court injunction and was successful in obtaining a court order.

Lexow finally reviewed several years’ worth of financial records earlier this week.

She said they raised many other concerns about questionable purchases.

In a strange twist, it appears the board justified the dismissals of the society’s two staff members and the effort to remove Lexow through an opinion offered by a Many Rivers councillor, Debbra Greig.

According to a letter from the president, the board hired Greig to evaluate the “degree of damage” to the society’s morale that was done by Lexow and the staff members in the previous three months. Cochrane also accused them of “lateral violence,” or workplace bullying, towards other staff members.

But Brent Ramsay, Many Rivers’ executive director, later wrote to Cochrane and Statham that Greig “had no business providing consultative services to the society.”

Lexow said she had to look up the term “lateral violence” to see what it meant.

“I never received an explanation for that; I don’t think I’ve done that,” she said.

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, the board voted to dismiss Lexow.

She has appealed that decision to the registrar.

Lexow said she hopes this story doesn’t dissuade people from becoming board members.

“I believe there are many good charities and non-profits out there but I also believe we have a problem with how everything is set up,” she said.

“There is a need for more transparency. The Whistleblower Act would have been so useful in this case.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at

myles@yukon-news.com

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