BURNABY (NEWS 1130) – Tenants have suffered emotionally and were devastated by the theft. Those statements were submitted by the Halston Hills Housing Co-op, as their former president was sentenced to three years and nine months in jail for stealing from the Burnaby co-op.
Lillian Cameron pleaded guilty, and besides the jail time, she has been ordered to pay back the co-op more than $2 million.
Cameron was elected president of the co-op in 1999 and held the position until the day she left the co-op in November of 2016. Just a few days before, CIBC had contacted the co-op’s auditor to point out what appeared to be fraudulent activity.
But the 90-unit complex on Horne Street had been slowly falling into disrepair long before then. In the victim impact statement, the co-op says the buildings were not maintained. “In our two apartment blocks, balconies and staircases had to be condemned as they were unsafe from the lack of maintenance and upkeep,” says the statement.
It says Cameron abused her position and bullied members. Tenants say she showed favouritism, inviting some of them into her home, and used her “ill-gotten gains to take them on trips, lavishly spending money on them.”
The statement says members of the co-op were lied to about repairs, some of whom had to pay for them out of their own pockets. Some people, according to the current board of directors, suffered in silence, intimidated by Cameron’s threats of eviction.
“No one ever had hard evidence around what was happening until the bank checked into the cashing of a fairly large amount, and then it started to unravel,” says Thom Armstrong, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC.
A criminal investigation was then launched in early 2017. It uncovered cheques made out to various contractors deposited into her accounts. She would also have co-op cheques made out to her personally, to cover out-of-pocket expenses, when she incurred no such expenses.
“She managed to override all of the internal financial controls in place to create a number of fake invoices and arranged to have them endorsed and deposited to her account, ” says Armstrong.
Meanwhile, tenants who were eligible for subsidies were denied. In a case called particularly heinous by the current board members, a single mother with two disabled children lived with a malfunctioning toilet for two years. She was forced to reach into the toilet tank to flush it, as well as turn off the shutoff valve each time it was used. According to the directors, it was Cameron’s “callousness” that prevented her from replacing the $150 toilet. They say it was her threats of eviction that enabled her to get away with her abuse.
“The betrayal of their trust has left many with a sense of hopelessness and intense frustration” says the statement, which calculates it will years before the co-op will recover from the losses.
Armstrong sympathizes with the tenants. “People feel betrayed. When you elect a board of directors in any association, you’re putting a special kind of trust in that person.” He points out insurance adjusters are now determining whether payments can be made to the co-op.
He says it’s been a difficult but important lesson for all co-ops. “This will always serve as an example that co-ops can look to, to explain that control systems are not about trusting people, but about exercising duty of care to make sure members are well protected.”
Meanwhile, the co-op is still going after Cameron, Corinne Tysson, who was secretary of the co-op at the time, one accounting firm, and two financial institutions in a lawsuit. It claims Tysson failed to notice where the cheques were going. Accounting firm Tompkins, Wozny, Miller & Co. are named, as the co-op believes they are negligent in not catching the fraud during audits. Vancity is named for allegedly paying out forged cheques and CIBC is accused of honouring fraudulent cheques.
Editor’s Note: NEWS 1130 has edited this article to say Cameron left the co-op and to indicate that proceedings against one of two accounting firms have been discontinued.