NANAIMO — The man tasked with overseeing Nanaimo's finances defied in-house policy without consequence for nearly two years by ringing up more than 60 personal charges on a City-issued credit card.
Statements obtained by NanaimoNewsNOW showed City staff flagged 64 charges on chief financial officer Victor Mema's credit card between May 2016 and September 2017 as being personal in nature. It's unclear what the charges were for or how much was spent, as the statements are heavily redacted.
Other records released via Freedom of Information request showed at least 11 of the purchases were for personal airfare.
The City's purchase card agreement at the time clearly stated "Under no circumstances will I use the BMO MasterCard to make personal purchases, either for myself or for others. Using the card for personal charges could be considered misappropriation of City funds and could result in corrective action up to and including termination of employment."
Mema was suspended with pay by Council on March 1 pending an investigation. The City would only confirm it was looking into "an allegation of significant concern."
The City's accounting services manager Laura Mercer, who has been with Nanaimo for 16 years, said it's fair to say the level of personal expenses on Mema's card was highly unusual.
She explained there are typically very specific and rare instances where personal expenses appear on City credit cards. For example, if a trip is both business and personal, the entire trip could be booked with the City card and then the personal portion reimbursed immediately.
Credit card statements for the City's director of human resources, chief operations officer and city clerk combined for the same time period showed only one partially reimbursed expense.
Further, three current and one former City employee confirmed to NanaimoNewsNOW it is well-known among staff that it is improper to make personal purchases with a City card. Several of them said it may happen by mistake or in a special circumstance but it's understood it must be immediately repaid.
It's unclear why Mema did not face disciplinary action, when or if his card was revoked or when he paid back the City for the expenses. Mercer said there was no longer an amount owing.
She said finance staff review every single line of every statement and any inconsistencies are reported.
The majority of Mema's credit card statements were approved by chief administrative officer Tracy Samra, while others were simply signed off on by Mema himself.
Blaine Gurrie, president of CUPE Local 401, said finance staff voiced concerns over what they were seeing as the situation continued to drag on.
"They assumed the processes would kick in and it would take care of itself. When it didn't and (deputy director of financial services) Deborah Duncan went into early retirement and other managers started dropping off, they formed their complaint," Gurrie said.
When finance managers took their concerns directly to Samra in a late 2017 meeting, Gurrie said "The reaction from the employer was not what they expected."
He would not elaborate.
Following that meeting and shortly after NanaimoNewsNOW's freedom of information requests for staff credit card statements were declined in early December 2017, the City issued a statement saying Samra initiated a review and update of the policies surrounding employee expenses.
"Allegations that City staff have overspent or charged taxpayers for non-eligible expenses are unfounded. The City has appropriate internal controls in place to review and approve claims," the release said.
It lauded Mema for moving to make expense reporting more transparent.
Two months later, on February 3 of this year — three days after Samra was arrested for allegedly uttering threats at City Hall and with Mema acting as CAO — the City delivered another statement, this one posted on their website at 11 p.m. on a Saturday.
It claimed the review of the expense policy was complete, auditor KPMG found no misappropriation of City funds and new rules to guide staff on card usage were going into effect.
Gurrie said it was following that supposed audit that staff in the finance department began compiling a report and filed an official serious misconduct complaint.
Shortly after the KPMG report, which has not been made public, was presented to Council in-camera, Mema was suspended with pay pending the currently ongoing investigation.
The way the credit card spending was recorded also meant an unknown amount of money went unreported on Mema's personal expense report. Mercer confirmed because the amounts were eventually reimbursed, they did not appear on management expense statements. The most recent one released showed Mema spent more than twice his annual budget in the first nine months of 2017.
Kris Sims, B.C. director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it's "outrageous" access to the information was originally denied and then pulled out of the City through a freedom of information process.
"This information shouldn't be redacted. This should not be covered up, this should not be hidden. Why? Because it's not their money, it's taxpayer's money and they have a right know what happens to it," Sims said.
"Just because you have a City credit card doesn't mean you get to have a loan. Use your own credit card...Don't treat the City like a credit card, that's not what that's for."
Sims called for every dollar of every City or Council expense account to be documented online.
Mema is also currently facing civil action by his previous employer, the District of Sechelt, over nearly $10,000 in credit card charges the District claimed were personal. The claim has not been proven in court.
Mema did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.
On Twitter: @domabassi
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