UMSU council pumps brakes on audit

Photo by Carolyne Kroeker.

At its March 24 meeting, the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) council called off a forensic audit of its finances and apologized to the student body for what it called a hasty decision concerning allegations of misuse of funds by UMSU president Jeremiah Kopp.

Earlier this month, council passed a series of three emergency motions after former vice-president student services Jessica Morrison levelled allegations that Kopp misused union funds through an executive credit card.

The first emergency motion made public a package of financial documents, including credit card statements that showed $29,000 of expenses incurred on the president’s card – $14,000 of which Morrison alleged were unapproved; the second called for the forensic audit; and the third cut off Kopp and vice-president internal Zachary LeClerc from use of executive credit cards for the remainder of the term.

Morrison resigned later in the same meeting.

At the start of the March 24 meeting, council passed a motion preventing UMSU executives from firing any staff for the remainder of the term. The motion also temporarily made general manager Thomas Blumer and accounting manager Ron Davey report to council rather than the executive.

Later in the meeting, Blumer and Davey presented to council in an hour-long closed session. At the end of the closed session, law student representative Karas Elbardisy put forward a motion – citing the advice of Davey – to cancel the audit and apologize.

Council’s apology and retraction

Elbardisy’s motion was later split into two separate proposals: one calling off the audit and one issuing an apology.

The motion to cancel the forensic audit included a stipulation that the next annual audit of UMSU finances expand its scope based on the input of the general manager and accounting manager, with the aim of developing recommendations for operational and bylaw changes.

The apology motion passed in an amended form. Instead of apologizing to Kopp specifically, UMSU council issued an apology to the entire membership “for the rash reaction of the original motion as the actions of the time took no consideration for the effects on various council members’ reputations and the more serious effects on the student body.”

Speaking to the Manitoban following the meeting, Elbardisy explained his reasoning behind proposing the motion to halt the audit and apologize to Kopp.

“The apology was for the rashness of the decision,” Elbardisy said. “It wasn’t for asking questions or questioning Jeremiah or questioning the executive. Council has absolutely every right to do that, and I encourage that. But I just felt that this blew up fairly quickly, and it affected his reputation in a very negative way prior to having all the facts.”

Speaking in general terms about the information provided by Davey and Blumer in the closed session, Elbardisy said council was advised the audit would be costly and wouldn’t provide the answers they were looking for.

“It wouldn’t give us ‘was this right, was this wrong,'” he said. “And what the councillors know now is that the policies don’t prohibit what happened, they tend not to speak on it one way or the other, and that’s an issue.”

“That’s something that council has tried to fix tonight,” Elbardisy added, referring to the expanded mandate of the annual audit. Another motion passed at the end of the meeting calls for an administration committee – comprising key staff members, including Davey and Blumer – to develop a report to council on recommendations for expenditure processes.

“UMSU chamber isn’t a chamber that can pass judgment,” Elbardisy said. “And so when we were told that the forensic audit wouldn’t help, we’re free to make moral judgments: we can say Jeremiah shouldn’t have spent money on X or Y, he shouldn’t have gone out to Joey that night, but we can’t pass judgment where the policy and bylaws don’t give us the power to pass judgment.

“As a council we can’t make a moral judgment and say ‘you’re wrong,’ or ‘you’re right,’ but we can say we don’t want this to happen again and we’re going to implement policies to stop it from happening.”

Kopp’s reaction

Kopp said he was encouraged by the council’s decisions.

“I think it reflects sobriety,” he said. “It reflects a good understanding of the issues and I’m just glad to see the allegations were in fact confirmed to be baseless.”

Kopp also confirmed the decision was informed by advice from Davey and Blumer, who had consulted with audit firms.

“I think UMSU council felt that the previous meeting’s decisions were unwarranted and that it did significant undue harm to my reputation,” Kopp said. “But what I’m very happy about is that they chose to apologize to all UMSU students who were provided incomplete information and were subject to rumour-mongering, and hopefully this will set the record straight.”

“The genesis of these rumours, the genesis of these allegations, were found to be severely lacking in terms of evidence,” he said.

“They were passing value judgements, and really, what everyone can agree on is there’s a need for a bylaw and operational review, and it’s important some policies are considered to make sure nothing like this happens again. But I think what tonight says is that UMSU council certainly recognizes that the decision made last week was not made on facts, but rather based on emotion.”

In addition to UMSU council’s apology to the student body, Kopp also used his presidential report – provided earlier in the meeting – to make his own apology for “the state of the union.”

Student opposition

UMSU arts representative Reanna Blair opposed the motion to rescind the audit and told the Manitoban she wanted to hear from neutral third parties about the audit.

“We should be speaking to unbiased people who were not within UMSU, who would have no connection to these charges that were incurred,” she said.

“That’s who should be presenting it to council. Because, even now, I don’t think council has a clear idea of what an audit can and cannot do. And to get rid of the audit in such a hasty fashion when it was voted on by more students than what were [here] now, I think was a huge issue.”

Blair added that she had concerns about the length of the meeting, which ran for nearly five and a half hours. Attendance, which started with roughly 70 people at 6 p.m. had dwindled to 30 by the time the motions were voted on, around 10 p.m.

“I think that when you get to these meetings that are incredibly long in length, people start leaving whose voices need to be heard on council,” Blair said.

Blair also took issue with the idea of an apology to Kopp.

“It’s actually hilarious,” she said. “This is students’ money that was spent in a way that concerns students – I think rightfully so.”

“And to say that we’re going to apologize to Jeremiah for something that happened that I think students responded in a way that was natural and normal in this instance, I think that’s ludicrous.”

Blair said that while she disagreed with the original wording which apologized to Kopp directly, she also disagrees with the amended apology to students because she doesn’t feel the audit should have been called off.