Election mudslinging

Online attacks prompt response from UWSA

Left to right: Mahlet Cuff (vice-president external affairs), Meagan Malcolm (president), Natasha Reimer Okemow (former vice-president internal affairs), Noelle Sagher (vice president student affairs)

Supplied photo

The University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) is denying anonymous allegations that its current executive covered up embezzlement by a former colleague who was removed from office. With the allegations coming just days before University of Winnipeg (U of W) students go to the polls for the 2020 campus election, it’s indicative of a messy campaign season.

On Sept. 30, 2019, the UWSA announced that Natasha Reimer Okemow, the vice-president of internal affairs, had been removed from her position in a motion ratified on Sept. 24 by the UWSA board of directors.

“The removal was due to Conflict of Interest, that is through violation of UWSA Bylaw 7.6,” the announcement read, adding, “As an elected Executive Director of the UWSA, the Vice President Internal Affairs role is a full time, salaried term position. For confidentiality and privacy reasons, the details of the conflict of interest are available only to the Board of Directors.”

Okemow ran on a slate alongside current UWSA president Meagan Malcolm, vice-president external affairs Mahlet Cuff and vice-president student affairs Noelle Sagher. Cuff and Sagher are currently running for president and vice-president student affairs, respectively.

In recent days, anonymous allegations have appeared online alleging that the dismissal came as a result of embezzlement. A Twitter account created on Feb. 24 under the handle @KermanAnthony, which claims to belong to a University of Winnipeg education student, tweeted that the “UWSA caught their VPIA embezzling student funds and donating them to a provincial political party. Instead of making this public, they fired the individual and forced everyone to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Not only did they misuse student money, they tried to cover their tracks completely.”

A subsequent tweet read, “Two of the UWSA executives responsible for this are now running again. If they want our votes shouldn’t they be transparent and tell us what really happened instead of wasting student money and then hiding it from everyone?” The account was removed from Twitter the afternoon of Feb. 26.

An Instagram account with the handle @stopuwsacorruption was created on Feb. 25 and repeated the claims made on Twitter. The account was deleted on Feb. 26.

In an emailed statement to The Uniter, the UWSA categorically denied the allegations.

“We can confirm that the accusations are completely false,” wrote UWSA chief operating officer Karolya Vargscarr. “No funds were embezzled or donated to a political campaign. As publicly disclosed in social media and on our website in October 2019, the VPIA was dismissed due to a conflict of interest, and personnel matters are subject to confidentiality obligations on both sides and cannot be disclosed publicly.

“The UWSA is taking legal action against those making these defamatory and false statements.”

In a phone conversation with The Uniter, the person behind the Twitter and Instagram accounts, who admitted to using “Anthony Kerman” as an alias, expanded on his allegations, claiming that his source for the information is someone currently under a non-disclosure agreement.

“Kerman” claims that student funds were misused by Okemow independently to make a donation to the provincial New Democratic Party (NDP).

“She made (a political donation) without the consent of the rest of the union, and the only reason that the union found out was because it was a substantial enough donation that (provincial NDP leader) Wab Kinew sent a handwritten letter thanking the union, and he sent it to the union mailbox, because the NDP thought it was all above board, that it was a regular thing. So when the general manager got the mail, she basically said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And that’s how things started to get out.”

He claims that, at this point, rather than announce the mistake, the UWSA had people with knowledge of the incident sign non-disclosure agreements.

He says he has not received a response from the UWSA.

“Kerman” also claims that he confronted vice-president of student affairs Noelle Sagher about the allegations, and that Sagher expressed doubt that the student body would care if he were to take the information public.

“Kerman” says he is upset that “rather than coming clean and saying, ‘A mistake was made. This is what happened,’ they try to cover it up. They try and continue to maintain their oligarchy.

“Frankly, it disgusts me, as someone whose money is going towards this. I don’t know how much of my money actually went into it because of the lack of transparency.”

In an emailed statement to The Uniter, the UWSA stated that “No student/UWSA money was donated to (the) NDP. We have no affiliations to any political party. We didn’t receive any handwritten note from Wab Kinew or donate any money to the NDP. The VPIA’s dismissal was not related to Wab Kinew and/or the NDP. None of the directors signed an NDA. They legally can’t discuss anything said in Closed Sessions of the board meetings because of confidentiality agreements and Acknowledgment of Responsibility agreements that were signed when they started as Board of Directors. No meeting (with Noelle Sagher) took place ... No exchange (like the one described by “Kerman” with Sagher) took place.”

At press time, The Uniter was unable to verify the identity of the person behind the Twitter account or whether it actually belongs to a U of W student. Their claims have not been verified, and our research yielded no evidence that a political donation was ever made to any political party by either Okemow or the UWSA.

There is evidence suggesting that Okemow may have volunteered for MLA Uzoma Asagwara’s campaign for the NDP nomination for the riding of Union Station. While that volunteer work may have violated the UWSA’s conflict of interest clause, it would not have cost students any money.

When reached for comment, the Manitoba NDP said, “The Manitoba NDP cannot comment on unverified allegations. Political donations are publicly reported and accessible. We're proud that many Manitobans volunteer and work on our candidates' political campaigns.”

The @stopuwsacorruption account only had 17 followers, one of whom was Kirt Hayer, a candidate for UWSA president who is running on a slate opposing Cuff and Sagher. Another account that (until recently) followed @stopuwsacorruption belongs to a campus group called the Cultural Celebration Club (CX3). Hayer is the founder and leader of CX3.

In a phone conversation with The Uniter, Hayer said that he does not know who is behind the online accounts.

“I feel like (the current UWSA executive) kind of lacked in a few ways, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they were actually corrupt,” Hayer says. “(The anonymous Instagram) followed me. Lots of people have been following me (during the election), so I’ve just been following everyone back. I didn’t think it would be an issue, but I’ll probably unfollow it now that that’s the case. I didn’t really think much about it. I just hit the ‘follow’ button.”

In addition to the allegations, “Kerman” also retweeted statements from another user that were critical of the UWSA executive’s support for local protests in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders. When asked if he was motivated to make allegations against the UWSA because of political disagreements, “Kerman” did not respond.

The Uniter stresses that we were unable to find any evidence substantiating any of the claims made by “Kerman.” Okemow did not respond to The Uniter’s request for comment by press time.

Voting for the UWSA general election runs from March 2 to 4. Polling stations will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Riddell Hall, the Richardson Centre and Merchant’s Corner. Mobile voting stations will also be open on March 2 at Wii Chiiwaakanak from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on March 4 in the Buhler Centre from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and in Centennial Hall from 12 to 4 p.m.

Published in Volume 74, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 27, 2020)

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