Chris MacDonald, national assistant to former Unifor president Jerry Dias, was the whistleblower who reported an alleged kickback scandal after being passed over for an endorsement in the upcoming election for union president, the Star has learned.
Dias, who was under “significant stress” after being forced to choose between two “close friends” to endorse as his successor, was consuming heavy amounts of drugs and alcohol when he allegedly took $50,000 from a COVID-19 rapid test supplier that he promoted to Unifor employers, according to a psychiatric assessment of the long-time labour leader.
Dias subsequently gave $25,000 to MacDonald, who he did not endorse, and stated that the money was from the test supplier, according to the union.
MacDonald “immediately took steps to report it,” said Unifor secretary-treasurer Lana Payne in a statement. The funds were given to her, and MacDonald filed a breach of ethics complaint.
The psychiatric assessment of Dias, prepared for his lawyer and obtained by the Star, says that “Mr. Dias’s wrongful conduct may have arisen at least in part due to his feelings of loyalty to the individual who was not chosen to succeed him.”
“The events reported by Mr. Dias surrounding the issue in the workplace featured the consumption of significant amounts of alcohol,” the assessment adds.
The medical report, which details numerous stressors, including the use of Percocet to treat an injury, was provided to the investigator. It does not dispute the allegations of an ethical breach.
Dias did not participate in the investigation into his conduct on the advice of forensic psychiatrist Jonathan Rootenberg, who prepared the assessment. On March 13, Rootenberg emailed Dias’s lawyer saying the former union president should not partake “due to his current mental status.”
“His stress level remains significantly high, and participation in such an interview will undoubtedly exacerbate that,” the email obtained by the Star states.
“Given that Dias did not participate in the investigation, Unifor is unable to speculate as to his motivations” for giving the money to MacDonald or for taking it from the test supplier, a statement from the union said.
Under the terms of Unifor’s constitution, the union’s presidency is an elected position. But the alleged ethics breach and ensuing revelations come as Unifor faces its first contested election since Dias first became president upon the union’s creation in 2013.
The current candidates are Dias’s executive assistant Scott Doherty, who was endorsed by the National Executive Board in February, and Unifor Local 444 president Dave Cassidy.
In an interview with the Star, Cassidy said Dias “didn’t even contemplate” endorsing his candidacy, and called Unifor’s endorsement process “flawed” and “outdated.”
“It needs to change,” he said.
Dias did not respond to the Star’s questions, but said Wednesday that he has always been “guided by the principles set out in our constitution.”
The psychiatric assessment says Dias had been experiencing numerous significant stressors prior to his leave, including substance abuse issues, an overwhelming workload and the decisions around his pending retirement.
The report says Dias “has consumed alcohol on a daily basis for 20 years, with increased use over the last few years,” including at meetings for union business.
Dias had also started taking Percocet, given to him by his father who had undergone hip replacement surgery, as well as other prescription drugs after sustaining an injury in December 2021, the report says.
“All of these factors had a cumulative and detrimental impact on him, specifically leading to increased drowsiness and fatigue, questionable decision-making ability and impaired judgment,” the report says.
Rootenberg confirmed he conducted an assessment of Dias but said he could not comment further.
Just before the union announced its findings Wednesday, Dias revealed in a statement that he was entering a rehab facility for substance abuse stemming from health issues.
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The report offers a detailed look at the Union’s former leader’s recent habits, including that his “drink of choice” is red wine, but he also drinks Crown Royal and vodka, and that he “usually has two drinks with lunch and another two at dinner, both of which are usually work-related meals, and then two more after dinner.”
Also included was that Dias “presently takes a 10-mg Percocet tablet in the morning to loosen up his legs, especially if he plans to drive; sometimes one during the day; one about an hour before going to sleep, and another one later at night,” and that COVID-19 added to his stress and workload in a role that typically demanded a 60-hour work week, even prior to the pandemic.
The report stated that Dias does not, nor ever has historically, meet the diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder and that his “intelligence was noted to be clearly above average, based on verbal responses, with good insight into his current circumstances.”
Unifor did not comment on the medical details in Rootenberg’s report, but Payne said the union reviewed the medical information provided by Dias and sought legal advice about continuing with the investigation.
The union has championed workers struggling with addiction. A resource booklet provided to stewards notes that Unifor supports “constructive, nonpunitive and proactive” interventions that do not place blame on an individual who is dependent on drugs or alcohol.
“Members suffering from such circumstances are not at fault,” the booklet says.
In her statement, Payne said Unifor supports employees whose substance abuse and addiction affect their employment, and treats those issues as a disability according to the Human Rights Code.
In light of the investigation, the executive board has now moved to pause election campaigning. On Wednesday, Payne said the National Executive Board is not currently reconsidering its endorsement of Doherty.
Doherty has served as Dias’s executive assistant since 2015. Property records show he and Dias both own units in the same Florida condo complex, which Doherty said is a retirement community where numerous union retirees have purchased residences.
“I want to be clear that the National President does not choose the next president, they merely make a recommendation to the National Executive Board,” said Doherty in response to questions from the Star.
“I believe friendships are not a factor,” he said, adding that the board cited his “track record in bargaining in nearly every sector” as well as nationwide experience, multi-tasking skills, and a “collaborative leadership style” as reasons for endorsing him.
“Since then dozens of locals and thousands of members have put their faith in me because they trust I have the skill set to do the job.”
Doherty said any member can campaign and that the next president will be chosen by delegates’ vote at a special convention.
Cassidy has been campaigning with a focus on transparency and a “membership-first” platform.
Many unions are grappling with internal cultural issues, said David Camfield, a professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba.
“Almost all major Canadian unions have problems with democracy,” he said. “They’re more democratic than any corporation, but these are all very large highly bureaucratic organizations. A lot of the vibrant democratic culture that once existed has been lost.”
But Unifor’s structure is particularly centralized, said Camfield. The union was born out of the Canadian Auto Workers, which was known for its “top down organizational culture” where the national president played “a very, very dominant role.”
Unifor represents around 315,000 workers in almost 30 sectors, including media. Unionized Toronto Star employees are represented by Unifor.
Camfield gives credit to Unifor for publicly broaching the findings of its investigation, and says “maximum transparency” is key going forward.
Unifor has not revealed some details of its investigation, including the name of the rapid testing company Dias interacted with.
Unifor has said it is treating the allegations around Dias as an “isolated incident.” The union says a hearing where Dias will be invited to present further evidence is scheduled for April.
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