Former law dean disbarred for misuse of university funds

Black-Branch to pay fine, current dean implements new accounting protocols

Former dean of U of M’s faculty of law Jonathan Black-Branch was disbarred and fined $36,000 last month for misappropriating more than half a million dollars of university money in a series of expenses the Manitoba Law Society described as fraudulent.

A Law Society of Manitoba disciplinary panel decision in December found that Black-Branch misappropriated university funds to pay for accommodations, meals, education and travel expenses while he was dean at Robson Hall.

The panel noted that law society counsel did not seek restitution from Black-Branch for any of the costs he incurred to the university. The counsel pointed out that U of M has reimbursed the Desautels fund’s losses out of its own budget and said the university could seek civil remedies from Black-Branch.

Misused funds included money taken from a university endowment fund meant to support the faculty’s Desautels Centre. Black-Branch served as chair and director of the centre at this time.

Current dean of U of M’s law faculty Richard Jochelson noted that the university has implemented a number of new accounting protocols to prevent future abuses.

“A simple change — but it’s significant — is everyone has a one-over approval, which basically means a higher rank than you has to approve your spending,” he said.

As dean, Black-Branch was able to approve his own expense claims. Moving forward, the university will improve accountability measures by checking the dean’s expenditures quarterly instead of yearly, as was the case during Black-Branch’s tenure.

Documents from Black-Branch’s disciplinary hearing stated that the panel found the evidence against Black-Branch so strong 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.”

Leah Kosokowsky, the law society’s CEO, called Branch’s actions “a significant breach of integrity.” She said the law society’s intention with its verdict was not to punish, but “to protect the public interest.”

“It is to preserve the public’s confidence in the law society’s ability to regulate lawyers,” she said.

U of M administration waited until after details emerged from Black-Branch’s disciplinary hearing to seek criminal or civil charges against Black-Branch, an approach that drew criticism from U of M philosophy professor Arthur Schafer and five U of M law professors who signed a letter to police on Dec. 21 asking them to pursue legal action.

The university asked police to investigate Black-Branch shortly after.

Jayden Wlasichuk, president of the Manitoba Law Students’ Association, said “there is a lot of hurt right now in the faculty,” as many had friendships with Black-Branch before his activities were revealed, as well as people who “have been very vocal about” the need for an investigation.

In contrast, she noted that since the law program is only three years, many current students have never met Black-Branch, including her.

“This seems both far away and also right in the middle of our faculty, because people have been talking about it for so long and there’s been so much discussion,” she said. “But [for] most of us, it’s this figure we’ve never met or really heard of until this,” she said.

As a result of his disbarment, the law society has removed Black-Branch’s name from its rolls of solicitors and barristers. Kosokowsky said that disbarment is “not very common at all,” and noted that it is reserved for the “most serious of conduct.”

“It is the ultimate penalty that you can be subjected to as a lawyer, because it essentially ends your career,” she said.

In order to practice law in another jurisdiction in Canada, Black-Branch would be required to disclose the fact that he had been disbarred.

Law student Peter Frejek was not enrolled during Black-Branch’s tenure. He called the situation “really unfortunate.”

“The legal profession is supposed to be one that takes integrity and personal and professional reputation quite seriously, and this does seem to be a not great reflection on that,” he said.