Laurentian University must release faculty association’s requests for financial records, Ontario board rules

Laurentian University will have to release financial records to its ousted faculty association, as well as any other internal records of the university during the time the union was critical of the institution’s ethical standards, provincial workers’ compensation board commissioners ruled in a decision Friday.

The union’s request to review severance pay and other documents will be closely scrutinized in coming months by taxpayers and politicians in light of news reports that included allegations of financial improprieties and mistrust and leading to a financial investigation at the school.

The regional Canada Revenue Agency has investigated a “long list” of items, including a term-life insurance policy valued at $200,000 to $300,000, regular payments to a travel agent and a short-term disability policy with a premium of about $20,000 a year, said Michael Harcourt, Laurentian’s vice president for human resources and institutional relations. The matter was referred to the University of Ottawa, where it is being reviewed by outside lawyers, Harcourt said. The most significant issue, he said, is a policy with a life and health insurance premium of $25,000 annually that “would be in line with other university programs.”

The faculty association sought the documents in 2007 after the union voted in June 2004 to suspend its autonomy and withdraw from the university. The following March, it launched a formal grievance against the university and the union was dissolved. After the union returned to the bargaining table in 2008, negotiations were unsuccessful.

This month, the faculty association filed a request for review of financial records and other records dating from 1997 to 2000. Laurentian, however, challenged that request in a letter submitted to the Workers’ Compensation Board of Ontario on March 9. The board ruled against Laurentian in a three-hour hearing Friday, finding that Laurentian had not adequately defended the documents and ordered the school to release it.

Laurentian said in a news release Friday that the decision is not final and it will have to consider an appeal. The university also said that it would prepare to take its case to provincial officials, the agency that oversees provincial employees’ compensation and to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“The unions have fought our government and the other parties all the way to court to try to make money and the university has suffered enormously,” said Harcourt. “So why should they allow this association to access records that could help them make money?”

The union, meanwhile, said it doesn’t believe the votes that triggered the conflict of interest allegations were tainted.

“This issue is not about pay but about accountability,” said Marco Manconi, president of the Laurentian Faculty Association. “We will be committed to obtaining the documents and will carefully consider the letter, even if it is distributed. We remain committed to ensuring that all of the university’s finances are open to public scrutiny.”

Harcourt said he believes the union’s request for information was not linked to the recent independent audit of the university’s books, which concluded there was no irregular activity in this area.

“Quite the contrary, I think they were looking for evidence of impropriety,” he said. “If they needed to see financial records from the mid-1990s, they could have done that for years and years.”

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