An accounting firm’s forensic examination of the Waskaganish band council’s finances has uncovered a theft of almost $300,000. The investigation found the money was taken either by “persons unknown or by Ms. [Shirley] Cheezo herself” from rental payments intended for the Waskaganish housing department that Cheezo once ran.

Cheezo, the former housing department administrator, was suspended with pay in May 2005 pending further investigation of the missing money. Her employment has since been terminated.

The Nation obtained a copy of the forensic report conducted by the accounting firm of Forsyth, Finucci, LLP, CGAs in St. Catharines, Ontario.

The firm investigated the books covering the period from April 1, 2000, until May 31, 2005, and found huge discrepancies between the monies received and the amounts deposited in the housing department’s three bank accounts.

The investigation of the main bank account at the Bank of Montreal showed that deposits were made sporadically. During many months, nothing was deposited into the bank accounts. Some months had partial deposits, as in December 2000 when $3,691 was received from various payments but only $2,712.50 was in fact deposited. The missing $978.50 remains unaccounted for.

The discrepancies then became even larger. In September 2001, $22,150 was slated for deposit. Less than half that amount, $10,282, actually made it into the Bank of Montreal. A few months later, in January 2002, $16,843 was to be deposited in the housing account instead of the $7,050 actually received.

The forensic report also said there may be other missing receipts that the investigation did not uncover, which would mean there is more money gone than the figure of $296,353.79 found to be missing when Cheezo was suspended with pay in May 2005.

From summer 2002 until her suspension, Cheezo was employed as the band’s housing administrator. During this time, she had full access to the filing cabinet where the money was stored.

“Money was collected in big wads of cash and it would just sit there,” said a source close to the investigation who wished to remain anonymous. “The envelopes were many inches thick.”

After the missing money was noticed, says the report, Cheezo was asked for an explanation. She said she first noticed a problem in September 2004.

“According to Ms. Cheezo this was the first time there had been any problem with missing funds,” said the report. “Ms. Cheezo did not report the theft either to the police, Council or Waskaganish staff.”

The report said that other possible explanations for the missing money could include an outside individual stealing the money while the office was open, although it mentioned there were never any signs of breaking and entering.

It is unlikely, the report added, that someone could enter the office three times without being seen or reported and walk out with large envelopes of money. In any event, Cheezo never reported any thefts to the police.

“The normal reaction of somebody in a trusted position would have been to quickly make a report to whichever authorities she chose; police, council or staff,” read the report. “It is the duty of a fiduciary to give the utmost care for monies entrusted to him or her.”

The band is deciding what its next steps will be after the report concluded that it would be difficult to recover the missing money. They are contemplating legal action, which would probably be long and arduous.

Some people at the band council are talking about laying criminal charges, others want to get money back, period. A third option is restorative justice. Or, the community could simply forgive the theft and move on.