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Auditor reveals SIGA (Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority) "mistakes".

SASKATOON

Serious accusations of incompetence or dishonesty were leveled at the board of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA) when the acting provincial auditor submitted his report on Nov. 15.

Auditor Fred Wendel suspects that more than $2 million has been mis-spent by the board. Gaming Minister Doreen Hamilton responded to the audit by firing the 16-member board en masse. At least two board members, Roland Crowe and Richard Bird, have appealed.

In his report, the auditor stated that the SIGA board was secretive and reluctant to account for its actions. Hamilton also announced that 16 recommendations related to improving financial management at SIGA will be implemented.

The auditor's report is filled with tough talk.

"Stewards of public money should spend money with due care and operate with a corporate culture of transparency. They should want to explain publicly how they plan to spend public money and they should-want to account publicly for how they actually spend public money," Wendel wrote. "SIGA's board did not establish this corporate culture. In addition, SIGA's board did not establish good rules and procedures to ensure public money was spent with due care. The board's failure resulted in the improper use of public money that we discuss in this report."

The report was not complete because SIGA had still not disclosed important information to the auditor.

"We state in this report that SIGA will not let us examine its board of director's minutes," Wendel reported.

But what was in the report was damning enough.

"Through our review of SIGA's auditor's files, we discovered that SIGA's chief executive officer used SIGA's debit and credit cards for personal expenses. Also, we became aware that SIGA's board of directors gave the former CEO a retroactive salary increase to repay SIGA for these personal expenses," Wendel wrote.

Dutch Lerat, the former CEO, has not commented publicly. His Saskatoon phone was recently disconnected. It's estimated that Lerat owes SIGA in excess of $800,000 to repay money he used on personal expenditures.

Wendel outlined a long list of problems with SIGA spending.

"We found the following improper and questionable use of public money:

* Improper use of SIGA's debit and credit cards;

* No support for many payments. As a result, we do not know what goods and services SIGA received and whether the payments were for the management of slot machines;

* Unauthorized salary advances;

* Travel and accommodation expenses that were not reasonable;

* Contracts that were in excess of fair market value; and

* Contracts that are of indeterminable or questionable value."

The share of the revenue from the four casinos operated by SIGA are deposited into a First Nations Fund. The auditor recommended the government can recover its money, $1,085,000, by withholding payments due to the fund.

Dutch Lerat was a vice-chief of the FSIN when SIGA's board dismissed its previous CEO in February 1996. Lerat was appointed acting CEO.

"In the spring of 1996, the board hired a consultant to do an executive search for the position of CEO of SIGA. The consultant did the search and provided a list of candidates for the position. We were told the selection committee of the board interviewed everyone on the consultant's list. We were also told the acting CEO did not submit a resume and was not interviewed by the selection committee.

Lerat was hired June 27, 1996 but no background check was done, Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming told the auditor because since "the applicant was a FSIN vice chief at the time of the application; a detailed background check was not considered necessary."

Without saying it directly, Wendel's report created the impression he doesn't believe Lerat should have been hired in the first place.

"We are unable to find any evidence about the CEO's training and experience for the job," he wrote.

The provincial Justice department will review a number of situations arising out of the audit to see if criminal charges are appropriate.

A few of the most alarming incidents involved what appear to be kick-back schemes and possible fraudulent activity.

"Included in promotion expenses is the cost of leasing a Hummer (an army type of vehicle adapted for public use). SIGA leased a 1997 Hummer for promoting SIGA's casinos. SIGA paid at least $5,250 per month for this lease. At the end of the lease, the vehicle was returned to Eagle's Nest Enterprises," the report states. "Instead of leasing the vehicle from a dealership, SIGA leased the Hummer from Eagle's Nest Enterprises. Eagle's Nest Enterprises is owned by an individual who provides other consulting services to SIGA. SIGA did not have a copy of the lease for us to examine.

"On Nov. 24. 1999, SIGA leased a new Hummer for two years from the spouse of a person who had a consulting contract with SIGA and attended board meetings and received reimbursement for board expenses. This person was formally appointed as a board member on June 30, 2000. Under the terms of this lease, SIGA must go to this individual first to lease any further vehicles before leasing vehicles from anywhere else. Simply put, the restriction forced SIGA to lease vehicles from this individual rather than leasing vehicles from those who can provide competitive leasing rates," the report reads.

The report also details board members caught in a conflict of interest by entering into contracts with SIGA, expenses submitted for spouses who traveled along with board members even though public policy dictates that spouses must pay their own way and many other improprieties.

Recently re-elected Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde told Windspeaker he doesn't dispute any of the auditor's findings.

"No. We've already implemented 75 per cent of the provincial auditor's recommendations. So we've concurred. We want to be open and transparent about everything. So, nothing to dispute. We want to make sure that what has happened in terms of the SIGA situation doesn't happen again in the future. So, one, the problem's been identified and, two, we're working to correct it," he said, during a phone interview on Nov. 22.

One of the first public statements Bellegarde made after the report was made public was that SIGA and the FSIN had made "mistakes." Windspeaker asked him what the difference was between mistakes and corruption.

"When we say mistakes have been made, we're not trying to lessen it by any means because files have been forwarded to the department of Justice and if things have to happen that way through the legal route then let due process take its course," he answered.

"We want to make sure that people realize that we have opened the door for gaming here five years ago via White Bear opening up the first casino. The gaming agreement we have in place is by far one of the most progressive in Canada. It's not ideal by any means because at some point ... when do we deal with the issue of jurisdiction? That's not dealt with anywhere in any gaming agreement in Canada and that's where we have to lead. We say, we've learned from this experience. We've learned many, many things, but bottom line is it's created jobs and wealth for our people and we want to continue to do that."

He was asked for a short answer describing what went wrong at SIGA.

"Short answer -- too much power and control in one individual. It was abuse. We had proper checks and balances and monitoring in place but the system seems to have failed because there was just too much authority vested in one person," he said. "He was the CEO and the chairman at the same time. The structure, there was some flaws in it from day one. It's my portfolio. Gaming's my portfolio.

"We're structured in the sense that we have a chief and four vice-chiefs and each of them has portfolios. The chief's ex officio in everything. But if I delegate to you and I get reports saying everything's fine, I believe you. Why shouldn't I believe you? But then once we start getting information that things aren't proper, and that was in June when we started getting all the information and that's when thing's started being corrected -- I won't say unravel -- just being corrected and that's basically six months ago.

While frequently insisting that the FSIN accepts the blame for the mess, Bellegarde nonetheless noted that the provincial agency responsible for monitoring SIGA also dropped the ball.

"Sask. Liquor and Gaming Authority had ultimate authority to approve and vet every year of SIGA's operations and expenditure plan. So for the past five years, the province through SLGA had the authority," he said. "They kept vetting things and approving things but nothing comes to pass on their side. The other thing that we learned about as well, through our 1995 gaming agreement, how much power and authority the province really did have, and does have because our gaming agreements and operating agreements are in place until April 1, 2001. Basically SIGA was almost like a Crown corporation of the province, with a little more authority than their existing structures. That's what we're seeing now."

Opposition members and some Saskatchewan chiefs suspect there was political motivation behind the government allowing things to go as far as they did. Bellegarde first insisted that his organization is not making excuses and accepts its share of the blame before agreeing that political rivalries may have played a part.

He said there's no chance the casinos will close.

"They'll continue to operate. We want to basically save First Nations gaming in Saskatchewan and I think we're on a process and a path to do that," he said.

Asked if grassroots people are going to resent the way money that is so desperately needed was so carelessly expended, Bellegarde wouldn't say.

"You're going to have to ask them."
COPYRIGHT 2000 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Author:Barnsley, Paul
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Words:1639
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