Former Unifor leader Jerry Dias pressured assistant to drop ethics complaint against him, report says

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Former Unifor leader Jerry Dias pressured assistant to drop ethics complaint against him, report says

Unifor national president Jerry Dias attends a press conference announcing a tentative agreement for 9,000 members working at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, October 15, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Former Unifor national president Jerry Dias, who was accused by his own organization of improperly accepting $50,000 from a vendor, became increasingly panicked in his final days before retiring, and exerted pressure on a former assistant who had made the initial complaint about the alleged payment.

Mr. Dias used his power and influence within Unifor to get his current assistants to convince the whistleblower, Chris MacDonald, to withdraw his complaint so that an investigation into Mr. Dias’s conduct would not proceed. One of those assistants was Scott Doherty, a close friend of Mr. Dias who is now running in Unifor’s election for its next president.

These allegations, and other specifics of the events that led up to Mr. Dias’s abrupt retirement from Unifor this year, are contained in a 29-page third-party investigative report that was reviewed by The Globe and Mail. It was prepared by the employment law firm Turnpenny Milne LLP and submitted to Unifor on March 15.

Some of the report’s contents were already known to the public, but the document in its entirety contains previously unknown details.

It paints a picture of a culture of fear at Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union. It describes Mr. Dias as having a stranglehold over his assistants, prioritizing loyalty over ethics and even promising gifts to the most faithful among them.

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During Mr. Dias’s nine years at the helm of Unifor, he was perhaps the most respected face of Canada’s labour movement, with a reputation for being a tough negotiator. He successfully campaigned for billions of dollars in new automotive contracts for Ontario workers and was a key figure in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Mr. MacDonald, the former assistant, lodged his formal complaint against Mr. Dias in January. The recipient of that complaint was the union’s secretary-treasurer, Lana Payne – who, like Mr. Doherty, is now running for the union’s presidency.

Mr. MacDonald told Ms. Payne that Mr. Dias had received $50,000 as a gift from a supplier of COVID-19 rapid tests, in exchange for promoting the company’s tests to union members.

And Mr. MacDonald claimed he had personally received half the money from Mr. Dias, as a cash reward for successfully getting Unifor-affiliated employers to purchase those tests in bulk. (The name of the supplier is not revealed in the report.)

In March, the Turnpenny Milne investigation found Mr. Dias had accepted the money, and that in doing so he had breached Unifor’s code of ethics. Details of the investigation’s conclusions leaked to the news media later in the month, and Mr. Dias was engulfed in an ethics scandal.

He announced his retirement in March, citing health issues, just three days before the union revealed that he was under investigation. Mr. Dias is also being investigated by the Toronto Police Service’s financial crimes unit for allegedly receiving the $50,000. No charges have been laid, and it is not yet clear whether any will be.

A union hearing into Mr. Dias’s conduct was scheduled for April, but was postponed because of his health condition. Earlier this year, he told union members and the public that he had enrolled in a rehab facility after months of uncontrolled use of pain killers, sleeping pills and alcohol to treat a sciatic nerve issue.

The third-party investigation, commissioned by Unifor and conducted by veteran employment lawyer and workplace investigator Catherine Milne, relies on witness statements and evidence in the form of texts, e-mails and call logs provided by Mr. Doherty, Mr. MacDonald and Unifor’s Ontario regional director, Naureen Rizvi.

Ms. Milne’s report devotes eight pages to detailing how Mr. Dias attempted to interfere in the investigation by pressuring Mr. MacDonald to drop the complaint, sometimes through texts and phone calls and sometimes through his other assistants, including Mr. Doherty.

The report also details how Mr. Dias allegedly came to accept the $50,000, and the circumstances that led to him giving half of that money to Mr. MacDonald.

Investigators wrote to Mr. Dias on Jan. 31 to introduce their process to him and ask him to contact them to schedule an interview, according to the report. They also asked him for relevant documents. Mr. Dias did not respond.

The report says Tom Curry, who is the managing partner at Lenczner Slaght LLP and Mr. Dias’s lawyer, informed investigators on Feb. 7 that Mr. Dias was on a medical leave of absence and was unable to participate in the investigation. As a result, the report notes, the investigation’s finding that Mr. Dias breached the union’s code of ethics was made without any of his own evidence.

In a lengthy e-mail response to The Globe’s questions about the report, Mr. Curry cast the investigation as “flawed,” because Mr. Dias “did not have the ability” to participate in it.

Mr. Curry said Mr. Dias had always been guided by the principles of the Unifor constitution. “Allegations that suggest otherwise are inaccurate and I am confident a fair and impartial process would prove that.”

Mr. Curry noted that Unifor’s National Executive Board was provided in March with a psychiatric assessment of Mr. Dias from a well-known specialist, Jonathan Rootenberg, who advised Mr. Dias not to participate in the investigation owing to his “current mental status.”

Unifor did not dispute Dr. Rootenberg’s assessment, and did not produce a report that contradicted the doctor’s findings, Mr. Curry said. He added that Unifor’s decision to pursue the investigation despite Mr. Dias’s condition contradicted the union’s longstanding commitment to protecting its members from unfair investigative procedures and preventing them from being marginalized because of mental health and addiction issues.

Investigators began contacting union leaders, including Mr. MacDonald, on Jan. 29, the report says. It was that day, according to Mr. MacDonald, that Mr. Dias and Mr. Doherty began pressuring him through calls and texts.

Mr. Doherty told investigators that Mr. Dias had received a letter on Jan. 29 from Ms. Payne informing him about the investigation, and that Mr. Dias was “in panic mode.” He wanted Mr. Doherty to intervene with Mr. MacDonald.

“Call me asap,” read a message Mr. Doherty sent to Mr. Dias using the Signal messaging app on Jan. 29. The next day, Mr. Doherty texted: “I am being ghosted by everyone. Jerry is upset but says he can’t talk to me.”

The pressure from Mr. Dias and Mr. Doherty continued over the next few days. In a Signal message group called “The Big Three,” made up of Mr. Dias, Mr. Doherty and Mr. MacDonald, both Mr. Dias and Mr. Doherty posted memes about loyalty, the report said.

In the early hours of Feb. 1, Mr. MacDonald received a series of increasingly frantic texts and Whatsapp messages from Mr. Dias, begging him to drop the complaint. Feb. 1 was also the day of a meeting of the union’s National Executive Board, where Mr. Dias was set to announce Mr. Doherty as his successor (he had previously planned to retire in August).

At 4: 07 a.m., Mr. Dias wrote: “Sorry to text you so early. Please call me when you wake up. It’s about today’s meeting. It’s about the union that we both love. It’s not about us.”

“Please,” Mr. Dias texted at 5: 40 a.m.

And then, at 6: 30 a.m.: “Today is an important day for our union, we need to talk. We have known each other a long time and you are literally my family, probably the person I have been closest to in the union. We can’t let this destroy the union. I need to tell you what I am doing.”

Mr. Doherty kept up the pressure on behalf of Mr. Dias throughout that day, according to Mr. MacDonald’s account to investigators. In one text, Mr. Doherty wrote that Mr. Dias had not said what he was being investigated about. But, Mr. Doherty added, he knew it was serious and that Mr. Dias wanted to make it go away.

In response, Mr. MacDonald said he needed the investigation to proceed. To which Mr. Doherty replied: “If he [Dias] retires today and we ensure you are exonerated what else is needed.”

Mr. Doherty had a conversation with Ms. Rizvi about the $50,000 gift. According to Ms. Rizvi’s statement to investigators, Mr. Doherty told her that he had gone to Mr. MacDonald’s house to ask him if they could make a deal, but that Mr. MacDonald was “feeling very pressured.”

“I don’t know what’s going on but Dias wants me to fix it,” Mr. Doherty said, according to Ms. Rizvi’s statement.

Ms. Rizvi said she told Mr. Doherty that bullying Mr. MacDonald “was not going to fix it.”

After being ignored by Mr. MacDonald for days, the report says, Mr. Dias became angry. He began attempting to talk to other members of Unifor’s leadership team about the issue. In a cryptic Feb. 6 Signal message to 10 Unifor leaders, including Ms. Payne, Ms. Rizvi and Mr. MacDonald, Mr. Dias sent a picture of his wife. “She’s all I have left, please do not take her away from me,” he wrote.

Mr. MacDonald told investigators he felt as though other union employees had stopped talking to him because they thought he should have been “protecting the union.” Others, he said, such as Katha Fortier, another one of Mr. Dias’s assistants, had asked him if he was available for confidential conversations, which he interpreted as pressure to drop the complaint.

Ms. Fortier told The Globe that Mr. Dias did not order her to pressure Mr. MacDonald.

Ms. Rizvi, too, told investigators that Mr. Dias was pressuring his assistants to help him make a deal with Mr. MacDonald. She said she had received a call from Deb Tveit, another assistant to Mr. Dias, who wanted help arranging an “assistant to assistant” call between herself and Mr. MacDonald.

Ms. Rizvi recalled her response: “I hope he ignores you because you are going to try to sink him the minute he answers the call.”

Mr. Doherty sent The Globe an e-mailed response to questions about his communication with Mr. MacDonald. He said Mr. Dias had asked him to speak to Mr. MacDonald about finding a way to “resolve the complaint where Jerry would resign, and go before the NEB and tell them what he did.” He emphasized that at no time did he ask Mr. MacDonald to drop his complaint.

In an e-mail, Mr. MacDonald told The Globe his statements to investigators about his contact with Mr. Doherty are being “weaponized” for political reasons.

“To be clear, contact from Scott in particular does not equal interference is how I would summarize how I felt,” he wrote. He added that Mr. Dias’s motivation for contacting him and asking Mr. Doherty to contact him was “likely a desperate attempt to shield his wrongdoing from public scrutiny.”

But, he said, “This was not the goal of the contact from Scott.”

Ms. Rizvi told The Globe that Mr. Dias’s desire was to confess to the union’s leadership and the National Executive Board.

“He was very clear that he did what was alleged and that in his mind a report wasn’t necessary. In that context he was prepared to confess, and wanted everyone to find a way to deal with the issue but protect the union and himself,” she said.

The report also reveals previously unknown details of the nature of the alleged $50,000 transaction between the rapid test company, Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Dias.

The report refers to the company only as “Company,” and it calls the people involved in handing over the alleged gift to Mr. Dias “Person A” and “Person B.” The names of the Unifor-affiliated employers who bought the COVID-19 tests are also not disclosed in the report.

The report says the relationship between Unifor and the COVID-19 test company began in the middle of December 2021, at the peak of yet another wave of coronavirus infections, which led to a prolonged early-winter shutdown in much of Ontario.

The company had secured bulk access to COVID-19 tests, and Mr. MacDonald, at the direction of Mr. Dias, was tasked with getting as many employers as possible to purchase those tests.

One employer, referred to as ER, bought 100,000 tests from Person B at the company. In late December, Person B told Mr. MacDonald: “We take care of people who help us. There will be a nice envelope for you.” Mr. MacDonald told investigators he shut down the conversation by saying he was helping the company for the benefit of Unifor members and expected nothing in return.

According to both the report and a previous account of the scandal from Unifor, Jan. 20 was the day Mr. Dias allegedly offered Mr. MacDonald the money.

That morning, according to the report, Mr. MacDonald was called into Mr. Dias’s office, where he saw two bags: one with Hermes-branded cologne in it, and another one that looked like a grocery bag. Mr. Dias spoke about his relationship with Person A, and insinuated that it was good for the union to maintain relationships with “rich people, like A” who can help union members. Mr. Dias claimed, according to the report, that the company had probably made a profit of about $300,000 by selling the tests through Unifor.

The report recounts Mr. MacDonald’s recollection of what happened next: “I brought this for you,” Mr. Dias said, pointing at the grocery bag. “There is $50,000 in that bag from A.”

Mr. MacDonald said he refused to take the money and told Mr. Dias that he, too, should refuse the payment. He suggested donating it to a women’s shelter. But, according to the report, Mr. Dias had another suggestion for how the money could be dispensed with: Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Doherty could use it to buy Mr. Dias’s boat from him, and then the two men could share its upkeep costs.

Mr. MacDonald told investigators that he ultimately took the money because he felt he had no choice. “He described Dias as being very persuasive and that as his Assistant, he had learned that you do not cross Dias,” the report says.

Four days later, on Jan. 24, Mr. MacDonald reported the transaction to the union. The money was moved to Ms. Rizvi’s metal cabinet and Ms. Payne was given a key. Months later, the union handed it over to the Toronto Police.

One of the last messages the report says Mr. MacDonald received from Mr. Dias referenced The Globe’s first story on the alleged misconduct. “The Globe and Mail is running the story. Article comes out this afternoon. Was it really worth it to destroy my life. Honestly, you were family. Everyone gets hammered now.”

In the weeks and months following Mr. MacDonald’s complaint, Mr. Dias, through his lawyer Mr. Curry, tried several times to reach a settlement with Unifor that would restrict how much information about the investigation the union could release to its members or to the public, according to internal minutes of a meeting of the National Executive Board held in March.

Mr. Dias proposed that Unifor publicly acknowledge his retirement and wish him well, but that the organization say nothing else about his departure. Ms. Payne told the union’s leadership at the time that those terms were “challenging to accept.”

On March 14, when The Globe first revealed that Mr. Dias was under investigation, the mediation between him and Unifor fell apart.

The events surrounding Mr. Dias’s departure have prompted calls from various locals for the union headquarters to reform its procedures and address the internal culture that led to such a profound scandal.

Financial integrity has become a key issue in the election that will determine who succeeds Mr. Dias as national president of Unifor. The vote will take place at the union’s upcoming convention, which begins on Aug. 8.

In addition to Mr. Doherty and Ms. Payne, Dave Cassidy, the president of Unifor local 444 in Windsor and a key critic of Unifor’s political culture, is also in contention for the top job.

In an internal e-mail sent by Ms. Payne to union members and staff late Friday evening, she said it pained her to read the full report on Mr. Dias and that she understood the “anger, disbelief and betrayal” over how Unifor now appears in the public eye.

“As an elected officer of this union, regardless of some people’s preference to keep everything quiet, I followed my duty to protect the union. So-called alternative resolutions, such as a quiet resignation, would have been tantamount to complicity,” she wrote.

“I stand by my view that an external, independent investigation was critical to ensure the union was never accused of a cover up,” she added.

Mr. Doherty told The Globe that the events of seven months ago show a “complete lack of judgement” by Mr. Dias, but that the report now being made public is a “desperate attempt to spin a narrative that there was an attempt to cover up this scandal when there was no such thing.”

“The timing of the release is questionable given the union stated in March there would be no further information released until Jerry Dias appeared before the NEB for a hearing,” he added.

Unifor represents over 315,000 workers across Canada, including some Globe and Mail employees. The minutes of the union’s meetings from February to June this year, as well as a summary of the Turnpenny Milne report, are available on the union’s website.

On Friday, Ms. Payne directed her legal department to send the full report to all the union’s locals so that members could read it for themselves.

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