Petersburg Pilot -

 
 

By Ron Loesch 

Unemployment hearing shows PIA finances, mistrust, responsible for board and employee resignations

 

Susan Harai

A claim for unemployment insurance benefits made pages of Petersburg Indian Association emails and financial statements public last week, and reveals reasons why two employees and four board of director members resigned last October.

Susan Harai was the director of the Indian Reservation Roads (IRR) program for the PIA and claimed there was a $300,000 to $360,000 deficit and discrepancy involving the IRR grant monies, according to the report of the State Employment Security Division’s findings of fact issued on Monday, Feb. 13.

The PIA is required to provide separate accounting for their IRR program funds, but they are allowed to transfer interest accumulated in their IRR savings account for use by PIA on projects or expenses not involving road projects. According to Harai, PIA has received close to $8 million since 2006.

The hearing record revealed that in September of 2011 Harai and PIA bookkeeper Nicole Dean brought their concerns to PIA administrator Will Ware’s attention and insisted something needed to be done to cover the deficit in the IRR account.

Ware, according to the record, did not agree with the two, but said he would bring it before the tribal council.

On Sept. 26, he went on a moose hunt with the board president Derek Lopez and brother Ron Ware, causing Harai and Dean to contact a board member on Sept. 27, and explain their belief that PIA was in a critical financial situation and alleged that the administrator had intentionally failed to disclose this fact for some time according to the hearing officer’s report.

In her written testimony to the hearing officer, Harai noted that Dean informed her that the PIA Quickbooks checking account balance was a negative $5,548.67 on Sept. 27, according to a spreadsheet presented as an exhibit at the hearing.

Harai was told by Dean, that PIA had only $152,000 in a savings account to cover commitments of $197,000 including payroll, accounts payable and the purchase of Forest Service property costing approximately $77,000. The property was located adjacent to the PIA’s office building on 12th Street in Petersburg.

According to Harai’s transcript, Ronnie Ware, assistant bookkeeper, told Dean that Will Ware would transfer funds to cover it all.

At an October 3rd meeting of the board, Harai and Dean presented spreadsheets showing the budget problems at the executive session. The board instructed the administrator to pull out of the proposed USFS land purchase and work with Harai, Dean and PIA Grants Manager Connie Bisson to prepare a budget for presentation at an October 5 meeting.

At the October 5 meeting of the board, the meeting minutes headlined the two major topics of discussion — an executive session and how to address the current financial crisis.

Harai and Dean presented their concerns over PIA budget documents and the missing IRR funds. When Will Ware was called, he continued to insist there was no money missing, according to the report of the hearing appeals officer.

Over the weekend of October 8-9 the board convened into emergency executive sessions where they considered terminating the administrator. The board vote was split, but agreement was reached on imposing sanctions on Ware and he was placed on probation. Under the probation terms his pay was cut, he lost some financial independence, an audit was ordered and two employees with whom the administrator had relational ties were transferred and stripped of their check signing ability, according to hearing documents.

On October 10, according to the hearing officer’s report, Administrator Ware uncollateralized the IRR CD, replacing the grant money to the proper account. On that same day both Harai and bookkeeper Nicole Dean resigned from their PIA positions.

The hearing officer noted that Harai resigned, “because she had lost faith that things would change, and she did not want to be liable for improper use of federal grant monies.”

In his argument justifying Harai’s resignation, her attorney John Hoag told the hearing officer, “No one from PIA has challenged…the spreadsheet that Ms. Harai put together regarding IRR finances. They show what Ms. Bisson had to admit, that the initial CD, which collateralized the restaurant loan was not and should not have been an IRR CD.

“Then what happened is we have a million dollar restaurant that began to bankrupt PIA and Mr. (Will) Ware began robbing Peter to save Paul, and that is documented in Ms. Harai’s spreadsheet,” Hoag stated.

Hoag explained that prior to Harai’s resignation she was never informed of the board’s action to place Ware on probation or on the terms of his probation.

“One is reminded of Animal House, and the double secret probation that the Deltas were put on. Neither Ms. Dean nor Ms. Harai were ever told by Mr. Lopez or by Mr. Ware that the CD would be uncollateralized…The fact is that Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ware could have given her information that would have caused her to stay,” Hoag told the hearing officer.

“Sometime later,” the hearing officer wrote, “an audit was conducted that determined the financial state of the employer was excellent; the deficit was a reporting error, and there was no deficit.”

Harai contended the audit was not performed by an external auditor as the board specified in their October meeting.

The hearing officer wrote in her conclusion, “The claimant in this case voluntarily quit work because she believed the administrator was engaged in unethical and illegal financial practices involving grant funding that was under her purview.

“The Department has previously held that an employer’s practice does not have to be outright illegal but may be only ‘highly questionable,’ to give a claimant good cause for leaving employment.

“There was no foundation to support the claimant’s argument that reasonable alternatives had been exhausted at the time she resigned. The council had taken every item of concern that she presented seriously and even called an emergency executive weekend session to address and correct her concerns. The board president had gone so far as to call the claimant at home on Sunday evening to assure her sanctions had been taken. It seems reasonable that a person of the claimant’s education and experience with an $83 per hour job hanging in the balance would have asked one or two pendant questions like, ‘what sanctions are being taken, and what is happening with the IRR grant account?’ before resigning. Therefore, good cause

for quitting work was not

established.”

 

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