Former OPSEU president countersues leadership, alleges claims politically motivated
TORONTO — The former president of an Ontario public sector union is countersuing the organization and its current leaders, claiming allegations made against him are the culmination of a politically motivated campaign to destroy his reputation.
The Ontario Public Services Employees Union is suing former president Warren (Smokey) Thomas, along with its former vice-president and former financial services administrator, for nearly $6 million it alleges they unlawfully transferred to themselves, including strike fund cash and union vehicles.
In a statement of defence and countersuit filed Friday, Thomas alleged the claims against him are part of a campaign by president JP Hornick along with vice-president and treasurer Laurie Nancekivell to undermine his reputation and deflect negative attention from their leadership.
Thomas, who retired in April 2022 after 15 years as OPSEU president, is seeking $4.5 million in damages, including for breach of contract, conspiracy and defamation, plus another $1 million in punitive damages.
Thomas's defence argued the claim against him 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," the statement of defence said.
In a statement issued Monday, Hornick and Nancekivell said they were limited in what they could say publicly but called Thomas's defence and counterclaim "fiction at best." They were elected to their current positions in April 2022.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
The union has alleged Thomas misappropriated around $1.75 million in union funds for personal benefit and then worked with his co-defendants to try to stall the executive board from carrying out a third-party forensic audit that exposed alleged wrongdoing.
OPSEU's statement of claim alleged Thomas illegitimately transferred five union vehicles to himself or family, signed off on over $600,000 in unauthorized withdrawals from the strike fund and received nearly $750,000 in unentitled cash payouts for weekend, overtime and vacation pay.
Thomas's statement of defence, meanwhile, alleged Hornick and Nancekivell are political crusaders who sought to undermine a successful president in their own leadership pursuits and who brought the suit in an alleged attempt to distract from reports some people in the union felt "marginalized by the new regime."
Thomas's statement of defence said tensions between him and a "politicized faction" of the union led by Hornick and Nancekivell "exploded" in November 2021, when he appeared alongside other union leaders and Premier Doug Ford at a news conference announcing a $15 minimum wage.
Thomas alleged Hornick had long pressured him to support Ontario's NDP, despite his refusal to back a political party, fearing it could backfire in contract negotiations.
After the appearance, which Thomas said was incorrectly seen as a Ford endorsement, the faction's "festering resentment" turned into a "personal vendetta" to take over OPSEU's leadership, the statement of defence alleged.
Thomas claimed he filed a successful harassment complaint against Nancekivell and other members of the union's executive board in February 2022 after alleged attempts to strip him of power and defame him.
Thomas claimed after a third-party investigation "substantiated his complaint," he agreed to a confidential settlement proposed by OPSEU's in-house counsel, which included cash and the transfer of a vehicle.
The union alleged the $500,000 in cash and transfer of Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland for the "so-called settlement agreements" was not authorized by the board and amounted to conspiracy and collusion. Thomas said it was not his job as the complainant to inform the board of the settlement.
Thomas claimed that over the years he paid for the opportunity to transfer "depreciated used" union vehicles to himself or family with "financial entitlements still owed to him."
The statement of defence described Thomas as a "workaholic" who had accumulated a significant number of lieu days, compensating days and vacation days by his retirement. All of the payouts he received in that respect, the defence said, were properly accrued and followed union policy.
It said Thomas has "no recollection" of the strike fund withdrawals in question but any withdrawal he approved were for "appropriate and necessary union purposes."
His countersuit alleged the current leaders were using their positions to "personally and professionally destroy" Thomas to advance their "partisan agenda," which it alleged is at odds with previous direction from members.
Hornick and Nancekivell said their allegiance is "first and foremost" to the union's members who they say elected them with an overwhelming mandate.
"We will never waver in that commitment," their statement read.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2023.
Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press