Ex-official convicted of $725,000 theft from band

A former executive director of the Kwadacha Nation Indian band was sentenced Thursday to a conditional sentence of two years less a day and three years probation for stealing nearly $725,000 to pay off a growing gambling debt.

From January 2009 to May 2010, Theresa Margaret McCook, 51, diverted to herself federal government money meant for a variety of services and programs that were never offered.

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An eight-year employee of the band, she started as the housing director and was then promoted to executive director where she was responsible for the management of band money and receipt of federal government funding.

The band's main reserve is located 570 km northeast of Prince George and 80 km north of the northern end of Williston Lake but McCook spent the majority of her time at the band's Prince George office.

To carry out the thefts, McCook submitted invoices to the federal government but arranged to have the cheque from Ottawa made out to a service provider, in actual fact one of seven friends or relatives, to avoid suspicion.

The seven did not know their names were being used for the scheme, Prince George provincial court judge Michael Brecknell said in reading out a decision.

"She told them she had the money in a trust account. The money was her own personal money and had nothing to do with the finances of the Kwadacha Nation," Brecknell said. "She said this trust money came from government compensation relating to the Williston dam project. The compensation was put into trust and she needed a second person in order to access the money."

"The acquaintance or relative would cash the cheque which was made out to them and cash their own personal cheque to Ms. McCook. Those seven individuals were led to believe they were helping out Ms. McCook with her own personal finances."

Brecknell said the friends and relatives were normally given a portion of the money for doing the favour. In all, McCook made 104 invoices and bank transactions for $724,570.40.

A Prince George band office employee who processed the cheques McCook authorized became suspicious of some of the cheques because of the amounts and how often they appeared but she was uncomfortable in challenging McCook directly because of her subordinate position.

In April 2010, she intentionally left a cheque for $10,000 payable to one of the seven on her desk in a way that it would be noticed by the Kwadacha Nation's chief, Donny Van Somer. When he saw the cheque, Van Somer did not recognize the person as providing services to the band.

When he asked McCook about the cheque, she said the person was "unable to travel and that's why he was unfamiliar with her," Brecknell said. But the explanation left Van Somer with an "unsettled feeling" and at the time an external audit of the band's finances was being carried out.

Van Somer asked the auditors to include the cheque in their audit and then asked McCook for documentation supporting the transaction.

McCook immediately took a leave of absence from her position and the auditor "discovered numerous questionable invoices" involving her. In September 2010, Van Somer and the band council met with McCook upon her return and she admitted she stole the money and a criminal investigation began soon after. McCook eventually pleaded guilty to theft over $5,000.

It turned out that during her frequent trips away as part of her job, McCook began frequenting the casinos.

"She describes her initial encounters as casual, for entertainment only but she soon became fascinated with the sights, lights and sounds of the casinos and the thrill of winning," Brecknell said.

By about 2009 she began to fall into debt because of her gambling, living from payday to payday.

"She started to borrow money first from payday loan companies, then from friends and eventually from loan sharks," Brecknell said.

"It was at that time she initiated the scheme to steal money from the Kwadacha Nation, rationalizing that her behaviour was only borrowing the money and she would replace it when she had a big payment. That event did not occur."

He said McCook stopped gambling after she was confronted about her stealing and there was no suggestion she used the money to enjoy an extravagant lifestyle.

"The money was spent to fuel her addiction," Brecknell said.

In a victim impact statement, Kwadacha Nation chief and band council said they did not condone McCook's behaviour but found the financial impact was relatively small and controls have since been put in place to prevent similar trouble in the future.

Since it came to public knowledge, they said McCook has been subject to ridicule but the community has since forgiven her and moved on.

"We feel that a severe punishment at this time may ultimately do more harm than good from a community standpoint," they said in the statement as read out by Brecknell.

He later noted it was federal government money that was lost.

"A lack of oversight by the government and the leadership of the Kwadacha Nation amounted to fiscal mismanagement," Brecknell said. "That must be of concern to the taxpayers of Canada who provided those funds."

Crown prosecution had argued for three-and-a-half to four years in a federal penitentiary and an order McCook pay the full $724,570.40 in restitution.

Defence counsel submitted a conditional sentence of two years less a day and an amount in restitution that McCook can more reasonably pay was in order.

In reaching his decision, Brecknell said he is required by law to take into account McCook's aboriginal background in accordance with the Supreme Court's so-called Gladue decision. He noted that none of the case law Crown provided to support its position related to aboriginal offenders.

McCook's sentence features several conditions. For the first nine months of the conditional sentence, described as a jail term served in the community, she is allowed to leave her home at the Kwadacha reserve only from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. each day except for work or medical emergency and for the rest, she is subject to a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

She must also formally apologize to the band by May 31, participate in victim offender reconciliation program, take counselling for gambling and any other addiction issues, and refrain from gambling and attending casinos and bingo halls through to the end of her probation.

McCook must also complete 100 hours community work, at a rate of five hours per month and pay $3,000 restitution during her conditional sentence and a complete a further 150 hours and $5,400 restitution during her probation.

Brecknell also issued a stand alone restitution order in favour of the Kwadacha Nation for the remaining $716,170.40. It cannot be executed until April 2020 and it will be up to the band to pursue any, all or a portion of the total.

Brecknell's decision amounted to 58-pages and took him roughly one-and-three-quarter hours to read out.

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