Journalism Course Union has been violating reimbursement policies since last year

Executives of the Journalism Course Union (JCU) have systematically violated money management rules set by the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) for nearly a year, Ryerson Folio has found.

From the end of the 2015-2016 school year until as recently as this month, executives have used cash profits from fundraisers and events to reimburse themselves and a former member for money spent on JCU events, rather than using the processes allowed by the RSU—a repeated breach of policy.

The mismanagement of funds came to light after current JCU vice-president of finance Serena Kwok told the Ryerson Communication and Design Society (RCDS) during a Feb. 6 pitch for funding for the JCU’s annual formal. According to minutes of the meeting, Kwok told the RCDS she’d been using JCU cash to reimburse $715 of personal funds from last year’s vice-president of finance, Linda Nguyen, spent on last year’s event. Doing so is a violation of RSU policy.

“I know [Nguyen] personally as a friend so I know that $700 from a fellow student’s perspective is not appropriate,” Kwok said, according to the minutes. “However I would still like to pay her back because we know that she spent that money last year.”

The RCDS later ruled that the JCU was being financially irresponsible and did not grant any funding for the event, said RCDS president Tavia Bakowski. Since the JCU said it was turning a large profit in its pitch, the decision not to fund the formal wouldn’t punish students by affecting the quality of the event, Bakowski added.

“In this instance, we didn’t really know how to react to that other than be like, ‘This is obviously not okay,’” said Bakowski.

Though Bakowski said she informed the RSU of the situation a few days after the Feb. 6 meeting, the JCU has yet to face any consequences from the RSU. The RSU alone—not the RCDS—is responsible for overseeing course union bank accounts.

RSU rules state that for course union expenses, executives must apply to be reimbursed through cheques issued by the RSU. All cash earned by student unions must be deposited into a bank account controlled by the RSU, and course unions cannot control profits they earn without RSU oversight.

The rules also say course unions are required to deposit all funds over $50 into an account managed by the RSU. From last spring until now, the JCU has failed to do so with $1,251, according to financial information provided to Folio.

We didn’t really know how to react to that other than be like, ‘This is obviously not okay.’

Bakowski said the situation isn’t fair to Ryerson’s journalism students. The cash in this case came directly from student purchases of JCU merchandise and event tickets, according to financial documents provided to Folio.

“This is super uncommon in my time in [the Faculty of Communication and Design] and I don’t think it necessarily brings good light to student leadership as a whole,” Bakowski said.

Kwok, however, said she believed the JCU had control of their profits and did not think she was doing anything wrong, adding that she and current president Kayla Gladysz went to the RCDS manager with their finances before the start of this school year.

“Not once did anyone say that we couldn’t reimburse Linda [Nguyen],” Kwok said. “Not once. And they were fully aware.”

Bakowski, the RCDS president, countered that, saying she did not know about the situation until Feb. 6.

Still, Kwok said she didn’t do anything wrong.

“I stand by the choice Kayla [Gladysz] and I made even though [Nguyen] overspent her personal funds for the JCU,” Kwok said.

Although students weren’t aware that all proceeds from the clothing sales would be going to Nguyen, Gladysz said she believed they would understand and likely support the choice, since Nguyen only spent the money on students.

“Linda [Nguyen] did not spend a dollar on a drink for herself after a long day,” Gladysz said. ”She didn’t go and buy herself anything with it. Linda was putting her money towards things for [events] and working really hard to make sure that these events were really great for students and, really unfortunately, she wasn’t able to get her money back, and that is unjust in my opinion.”

HOW IT HAPPENED

The illegal cash reimbursements began after then-president Madonna Dennis said she purchased trophies for the formal using $400 of her own money. Nguyen, the vice-president of finance at the time, and the Ryerson School of Journalism—which Dennis said contributed money to the event—arranged to refund the former president through a cheque from the school, Dennis told Folio.

However, Dennis said she needed the money before the cheque arrived, so Nguyen advised her to take $400 of the $700 in the JCU cash box at the time, all profits from the 2016 formal. Nguyen told Folio she did not remember if this had taken place.

“This was literally a whole year ago,” she told Folio in a Facebook message. “I wouldn’t trust my memory at this point.”

At the time of publication, both Nguyen and Dennis said they weren’t sure if the cheque from the school had ever arrived. Nguyen told Folio she took the remaining $300 from the cash box as a reimbursement.

“I knew [the cheque reimbursement process was] what had to happen, but we just didn’t do it,” said Dennis, current serving as director of journalism for the RCDS.

Nguyen also used personal funds—$715, according to financial documents provided to Folio—to cover JCU expenses during the 2015-2016 school year. However, Nguyen failed to file her receipts on time to be reimbursed through the formal process. She has since graduated and is no longer a Ryerson student.

The JCU did not turn a profit by the end of the school year and didn’t have enough funds to fully reimburse money spent by the executives, said Nguyen. In an interview with Folio, the former JCU executive said she believed this meant she would be unable to get her money back through official means.

“I did this out of good nature because I wanted to see these events happen,” she said. “You never really know the success of an event until it happens. I’m very grateful that the JCU is trying their best to do what they think is right.”

However, Bakowski disagreed, saying there were several processes available for Nguyen to be repaid officially. Bakowski said Nguyen should have been aware of this, as members of the RSU and RCDS explained the rules to all course union executives during training at the beginning of their time in office.

I knew [the cheque reimbursement process was] what had to happen, but we just didn’t do it.

“That’s completely false, you can get reimbursed regardless of you make a profit or not,” Bakowski said. “There’s nothing in the policies that states that you can’t.”

Regardless, Gladysz and Kwok agreed to reimburse Nguyen with cash profits from clothing sales in the current school year. The JCU did not inform the RSU about the payments, Kwok said.

“I guess that’s an error on my part, because [the RSU] might have advised me, ‘Don’t give [Nguyen] her money back,” Kwok said. “It’s not because I’m purposefully hiding it from them, it’s because there’s a lot of bureaucracy within the RSU.”

But even after Folio made the JCU aware of the apparent rule violations, Kwok said she was still managing the funds the same way as before.

In an interview on March 13, Kwok told Folio she had JCU cash in her bag at that moment—$216 in profits from merchandise sales, according to financial statements provided to Folio—which she said she was planning to give to Nguyen as part of her reimbursement. That money had not been deposited into the JCU’s RSU-supervised bank account as required.

Envelope containing $216 that Kwok said she was giving to Nguyen as a reimbursement for money Nguyen had spent on the JCU.

“This has been emptied out and used various times,” said Kwok, referencing the envelope of cash, which came from the JCU’s cash box.

“[This method] is a lot better at keeping our budget in check compared to last year,” she later added.

Kwok initially told Folio that she didn’t keep copies of the Nguyen’s receipts. This is directly against the constitution of the JCU, which requires invoices in order for an executive to be reimbursed.

“Linda [Nguyen] doesn’t have invoices. Mainly how we do it is I give her cash,” said Kwok.

Kwok said that she hadn’t read this section of the JCU constitution before, nor had she heard of previous vice-presidents of finance creating invoices, either.

Two days later, Kwok notified Folio via email that she did, in fact, have copies of the receipts after all.

“Someone could look at the numbers and say [Nguyen] was incompetent,” Kwok said. “She wasn’t perfect, but I do think there were a lot of responsibilities placed on her and she didn’t even know what she was walking into.”

RSU RESPONSE

Gladysz, Kwok and Nguyen said the JCU can do what it wants with the profits it makes, not counting funding that comes from the RSU and the RCDS.

“The money that students use to purchase their clothing goes towards the JCU, and then the JCU is using that money to reimburse [Nguyen] for the money that [students have] already put into the course union,” Gladysz said. “It’s just happening on a different timeline than one might expect.”

However, the JCU isn’t allowed to give out cash reimbursements this way, said RSU president Obaid Ullah.

“They have control of their own profits, but they’re expected to deposit it,” he said. “We don’t manage everyone’s minor, minor details of finances.

“There’s too much overload and RSU has a system that’s failing to support the number of student groups and course unions that we have, and it’s our fault that we’re not able to enforce these policies.”

At first, Ullah said he didn’t see a need to punish JCU executives for this situation because none of them had personally profited. However, once reminded that two consecutive years’ JCU executives had been breaking RSU rules consistently, Ullah’s answer shifted.

“Then I guess maybe it’s the RSU that needs to hold some consensus,” he said. “If this is a case happening more than once on a recurring basis, and I’m sure it’s probably happening with the decision of the course union, then the RSU needs to enforce it as well.”

RSU has a system that’s failing…and it’s our fault that we’re not able to enforce these policies.

Though the RSU hasn’t yet rebuked the JCU for the lapses, Bakowski met with course union executives on March 21 to address the issues on behalf of the RCDS. Course union executives were receptive to suggestions to stop it from happening again, she said.

“It’s been made obvious that this policy break was a combination of lack of communication, transitioning mistakes and a lack of diligence on multiple parties,” Bakowski said via email.

Bakowski said that moving forward, the RCDS is working to ensure its incoming executives understand RSU financial policies so they can be a resource for the course unions and students.

Kwok, recently elected as an FCAD director for the 2017-18 RSU, maintains that she stands by her financial decisions on behalf of the JCU.

“At the end of the day, Kayla [Gladysz] and I were elected to our positions to make that call,” she said.


Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Kwok had $216 in profits from Halloween and Valentine’s Day events with her in her bag during an interview with Folio. Kwok indeed said this in the interview, however, financial documents indicate the money actually came from winter merchandise sales. The article has now been updated. Folio regrets the error.