U of M seeks police investigation into former law dean

U of M previously did not proceed with legal action against prof who misspent half a million dollars

The University of Manitoba has requested police open an investigation into former law school dean Jonathan Black-Branch. The decision follows a Law Society of Manitoba disciplinary hearing that found the former dean misused over half a million dollars of U of M funds during his term, including money taken from a university endowment fund supporting the law school’s Desautels Centre, which aims to foster research as well as collaboration between the academic, legal and private sectors, and of which Black-Branch was chair and director.

The university had not sought criminal or civil charges against Black-Branch until late December, despite allegations of financial impropriety that arose in 2020.

The administration waited for the outcome of Black-Branch’s disciplinary hearing with the law society before moving forward, said U of M’s executive director of strategic communications Myrrhanda Novak.

“We reviewed the decision, which noted ‘that even if the standard had been the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, the Panel would have been satisfied that proof was sufficient,’” Novak said.

The law society hearing reviewed allegations that Black-Branch misused funds to pay for meals, accommodations, education and travel expenses.

Black-Branch went on leave without explanation in spring 2020 while the university conducted an audit in response to concerns raised by a whistleblower over misuse of funds earlier that year.

The hearing documents noted that three employees tasked with processing Black-Branch’s expense claims provided evidence that when they raised concerns with him, he told them to “stop asking questions and to just pay the amounts.”

In August of 2020, the U of M, without publicly naming Black-Branch, announced that an investigation had found that a senior university employee misused school funds. Rather than pursuing legal action, the university brought its concerns to the law society.

Black-Branch, who currently resides in the U.K., did not attend the hearing and sought numerous extensions.

Arthur Schafer, U of M philosophy professor and founding director of the school’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics called the law society’s findings “entirely predictable.” However, he said they raise “a number of troubling questions.”

One such question, according to Schafer, is why the administration didn’t “immediately share the information with the police and request a police investigation” after seeing the auditor’s report.

Schafer said the university could have also done more to recover funds from Black-Branch, such as putting a lien— a legal mechanism that grants control over another person’s property until a debt is paid — on his house.

CBC Manitoba reported that the U of M was advised in 2020 to put a lien on a property that Black-Branch put up for sale that year, which would have allowed the university to attempt to retrieve some of the money misspent by Black-Branch.

There is no record of any lien placed on the property however, and land titles indicate that the house sold in August 2020 for more than $800,000.

Schafer is not the only U of M prof to believe that the university could have done more.

The day before the U of M announced it would seek a police investigation into Black-Branch, five U of M law professors sent a letter to Winnipeg police urging them to take action following the law society’s ruling that Black-Branch’s activities “amounted to fraud.”

Schafer argued the university has “an obligation of accountability to explain and justify their conduct” regarding the situation.

He said, while he didn’t know why the administration didn’t pursue police action sooner or take more steps to recover funds, he believes the university’s “failure to act in a timely way and their failure to give adequate answers to media questions has encouraged speculation that they may have something to cover up.”

“The best way for any organization to deal with reputationally damaging scandals is to provide open and honest explanation and justification.”