Warren (Smokey) Thomas, the former president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, says in court documents that recent allegations of financial improprieties against him are part of a political campaign by his rivals that exploded after he appeared alongside Premier Doug Ford to announce an increase in the provincial minimum wage.
Mr. Thomas, who is among three former OPSEU executives accused in a lawsuit by the union of improperly using millions of dollars in cash and assets for personal enrichment, is calling for that case to be dismissed. He is also countersuing the union, its president and its vice-president for $5.5-million in damages.
The former union leader has filed a statement of defence and countersuit that alleges his “political rivals” within the union were “incensed” that he appeared alongside Mr. Ford during a November, 2021, announcement that saw the Progressive Conservative government reverse its previous minimum wage freeze and increase the rate to $15 an hour beginning in January of last year.
“Since I stood beside other labour leaders and Premier Ford for his $15 per hour minimum wage announcement, I have been a victim of a nasty, political campaign by some OPSEU/SEFPO leadership members to advance their own agenda with the Ontario NDP,” Mr. Thomas said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.
In a statement to The Globe, OPSEU called Mr. Thomas’s defence and counterclaim “fiction at best,” saying that it did not address the “substance” of the union’s fact-based statement of claim, which seeks to recoup $6-million in misappropriated funds. The union is also seeking an additional $6-million in damages.
“We look forward to the next step in the legal process, and the opportunity to seek justice for OPSEU/SEFPO members,” the statement added.
None of the allegations in the original lawsuit or in the newly filed countersuit have been proven in court.
The union alleges that Mr. Thomas, who served as president of OPSEU for 15 years before retiring from the union last April, along with Eduardo Almeida, the former vice-president and treasurer of OPSEU, paid themselves “significant compensation” they were not entitled to and transferred union-owned assets such as vehicles to themselves and family members for free.
The suit also accuses both men of paying out cash from the union’s strike fund to themselves and a third union executive, Maurice Gabay, and entering into “agreements” that ultimately enriched them at the union’s expense.
Mr. Almeida and Mr. Gabay have not responded to multiple requests from The Globe for comment.
The civil claim against Mr. Thomas was filed in mid-January after a third-party audit was ordered by OPSEU’s new leadership team, headed by union president JP Hornick and Laurie Nancekivell, its vice-president and treasurer. Part of their campaign platform was to ensure more transparency and financial accountability at the union, which represents more than 180,000 full-time and part-time public-sector workers in Ontario.
The lawsuit claims that Mr. Almeida owes the union $3-million in funds that he allegedly took; Mr. Thomas owes $1.75-million; and Mr. Gabay owes $1-million. The union is also seeking an additional $6-million in damages. The third-party audit is continuing.
But Mr. Thomas, in his lawsuit, says that the forensic auditor was appointed by the new leadership to create a false and misleading impression that there were financial irregularities within the union in the first place, and to manufacture “a basis for further attacks” against him.
The statement of defence alleges that the current leadership, who the documents refer to as the “politicized faction” of OPSEU, wanted the union to take an adversarial approach to Mr. Ford’s PC government and instead support the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP). The document names the “politicized faction” led by Ms. Hornick, who was elected last spring, and Ms. Nancekivell, as having “close political and personal ties to the ONDP caucus.”
The statement of defence says the allegations against Mr. Thomas “culminates a long campaign by Mr. Thomas’ political rivals which began during his enormously successful tenure as President of OPSEU/SEFPO to demean, politically destroy and cause irreparable emotional and reputational harm to him and his associates.”
“It has no basis in reality, and is entirely manufactured. Every single one of the transactions in respect of which Mr. Thomas had any personal involvement, was appropriate and consistent with his obligations to OPSEU/SEFPO,” the statement says.
Mr. Thomas claims that the “politicized faction” of the union demanded a “militant, adversarial approach to governmental negotiations,” and insisted that OPSEU support the Ontario NDP.
The document says the “simmering resentment” came to a head when Mr. Thomas and other organized labour leaders appeared at the Nov. 2, 2021, news conference with Mr. Ford.
“The tension that had been building between Mr. Thomas’ practical leadership and the ideological purity demanded by the politicized faction for their own partisan agenda to benefit the ONDP exploded,” the statement of defence says.
Mr. Thomas says that during his 15-year tenure at OPSEU, he refused to become involved in provincial elections because he felt the union would have no choice but to negotiate with the government of the day, and antagonizing a potential employer during a political campaign could backfire and harm the union.
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles declined to comment on Mr. Thomas’s claims on Monday, saying it’s an issue between the former president and his union.
OPSEU is also accusing Mr. Thomas of transferring one union-owned vehicle to himself in March, 2022, three to his wife, and two vehicles to his son over the course of his time at the union. But Mr. Thomas claims that the transfer of one of the vehicles to him was part of a harassment settlement between him and OPSEU.
Mr. Thomas had filed a harassment complaint against Ms. Nancekivell and other members of OPSEU in early 2022, accusing the “politicized faction” of making false and defamatory statements about him, to the point where it caused him “massive stress and emotional harm.” A third-party investigator into Mr. Thomas’s complaint substantiated it in its entirely, according to the statement of defence, and Mr. Thomas reached a settlement with the union involving the transfer of the vehicle and a cash payment.
Furthermore, the statement says that it was common practice for OPSEU to transfer old and well-worn vehicles to union employees or their family members when the vehicles attained the end of their useful life. Mr. Thomas always paid for the transfer of used vehicles to himself and his family, the statement says.
Regarding the alleged improper use of OPSEU’s strike fund, the statement of defence says Mr. Thomas did not have “specific recollection of the strike fund withdrawals in question,” but throughout his tenure only approved withdrawals from the strike fund when it was “appropriate and necessary.”
OPSEU has been embroiled in tension and turmoil for months leading up to the lawsuit against Mr. Thomas, Mr. Almeida and Mr. Gabay, as the union’s new leaders’ attempts to reform OPSEU’s internal culture began to provoke the ire of some of the organization’s own employees. At least a dozen employees have either been fired, suspended or have gone on sick leave over the past year, multiple sources told The Globe recently.