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A senior United Way of Greater Toronto executive committed suicide last month after being confronted with evidence she embezzled at least $600,000 from a previous employer, United Way president Frances Lankin confirmed last night.

Janet Donio, the local United Way's vice-president for informational services and operational change management, died while under investigation for her activities at the Council of Ontario Universities, a lobby group where she worked for six years as chief information officer.

As well, Ms. Donio's chief academic credentials - a Canadian university degree and a PhD from the United States - were found to be bogus, Ms. Lankin said.

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The irregularities were uncovered by the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm and involved the payment of funds - said to be between $600,000 and $700,000 - for services never produced, and which instead were allegedly being siphoned off by Ms. Donio.

The story began to emerge in March after the Council of Ontario Universities hired someone to fill Ms. Donio's old position.

"We found pretty clear evidence of fraud," said chief executive officer Paul Genest, stressing that no other individuals appear to have been involved. Nor were any improprieties uncovered in a second Deloitte & Touche audit at the United Way, which hired Ms. Donio in February, 2007.

The COU gets some government funds, but most of its revenue derives from levies paid by the universities it represents and it will be seeking to recoup its losses from its insurer, Mr. Genest said.

When Deloitte & Touche began unearthing irregularities, Toronto police fraud investigators were notified, but they were awaiting completion of the audit and apparently never interviewed Ms. Donio, Ms. Lankin said.

On the day the United Way was told of the allegation, - May 5 - Ms. Lankin and chief operating officer Catherine Smith met with Ms. Donio, 56, and told her she was being placed on a paid leave while the investigation continued.

"It was a difficult conversation," Ms. Lankin recounted.

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She and Ms. Smith then drove Ms. Donio home to her west-end Toronto house, where she was found dead the next day.

A coroner's report said the cause of death was "undetermined," according to a family account relayed to Ms. Lankin.

As for Ms. Donio's phony academic credentials - a degree from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and a doctorate in cognitive science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - it appears that the Council of Ontario Universities did not check them.

Neither did the United Way, relying instead on character references from the council and another former employer, Ms. Lankin said.

"Those credentials weren't critical to the job we hired her for, so we didn't check them."

The United Way of Greater Toronto was established in 1956 and supports a network of 200 health and social service agencies. Last year it raised a record $108.1-million.

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Ms. Donio's previous experience included a stint at TVO, as creative director of educational television, and at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, where she was an assistant director.

A member of the Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek Band, whose home is on the shores of Lake Nipigon in Northern Ontario, Ms. Donio is survived by two adult sons, Jason and Robyn Donio. Her former husband, Marcel Donio, is a justice of the peace in Thunder Bay.

Financially, Ms. Donio's affairs appeared unremarkable at the time of her death. In February, 2006, she purchased her house in west Toronto's Junction area, for $540,000, and in January of this year she remortgaged the property for just over $523,000.

"Jan Donio was a respected and admired member of the United Way team," the United Way said in a statement. " We grieve her loss and the difficulty faced by her family."

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