The Town of Comox has finally confessed that it inappropriately spent funds from the Hamilton Mack Laing trust.
At its Dec. 6, 2017, meeting, the Town Council approved paying $103,000 into the trust, a sum that town staff has classified as misspent prior to 2001, plus interest those funds would have earned.
In a report to Town Council, Comox Chief Administrative Officer Richard Kanigan characterized the misuse of funds as:
“These expenditures may not have been in strict accordance with the terms of the trust, which required the town to use the funds to convert Shakesides into a museum.”
It was an understatement. Some of those expenditures included repairing the Brooklyn Creek stairs, which aren’t even located on Mack Laing’s property.
It’s the first time the town has admitted spending Laing’s trust funds improperly.
And it’s unclear whether the confession is simply posturing for an upcoming B.C. Supreme Court hearing, or a genuine acknowledgement that the town mishandled a binding trust agreement with an important literary and ornithological benefactor.
In any case, the admission makes a start toward reparations for 36 years of disrespecting the Last Wishes of one of the community’s most widely admired citizens.
But not everyone agrees the town has fully owned up to the totality of expenditures disallowed by the trust. And there are other unresolved questions about the town’s accounting and handling of the Laing trust.
These issues are raised in at least a half-dozen affidavits that oppose the town’s court application to tear down Laing’s house.
Mack Laing vs. Town of Comox
Laing was a prolific naturalist, photographer, writer, artist and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront since 1922 earned him worldwide recognition.
Prior to his death, Laing left his waterfront property and his second home (named Shakesides) to the town. After his death, he left the town the residue cash from his estate “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum,” and to support its ongoing operation.
But nearly 36 years later, the town has done nothing to satisfy Laing’s last wishes.
Instead, the town applied to the court last February to alter the terms of Laing’s Last Will, namely to demolish his house and use his trust fund to construct a viewing platform.
To finance the project, the town now proposes to use the $103,000 of misspent money, $75,000 previously allocated, and the balance remaining in the Laing Trust, estimated at around $70,000.
Any money left over would be placed in a reserve fund to maintain the new platform.
But to critics, such as the Mack Laing Heritage Society, the town’s $178,000 deposit into the trust is a hollow gesture because the town had already committed itself to building a viewing platform in its court filing to tear the house down.
The town appears to be simply moving the money it has promised to spend, if the court allows, from general revenue into the Laing Trust. Not so, says the town. They maintain their action was to make Laing’s trust whole.
According to several affidavits submitted to the Attorney General’s office, which is charged with defending trusts made to public institutions, the town’s calculation of misspent funds doesn’t square with its own ledger entries.
Gordon Olsen, who has filed one of those affidavits, was a friend of Laing. He says the documents he has compiled show the town is “way short of making the Laing trust whole.” But he said the details of his claim is in the AG’s hands and will ultimately be made public.
In 2016, Olsen hired a Campbell River accounting firm to review publicly available financial records of the Town of Comox. The review showed the trust fund should be worth in excess of $480,000 today. The firm used figures released by the town and used conservatively calculated interest rates.
The independent analysis suggested that if the town had immediately invested all of Laing’s bequeathed cash plus the income it derived from renting the house for 30-some years, it would have nearly a half-million dollars in the trust fund.
Olsen believes the great disparity in accounting demands a court-ordered forensic audit of the town’s financial records.
A forensic audit is a specialization within the accounting profession to determine negligence or other financial irregularities for use as evidence in court. Most major accounting firms have a forensic auditing department.
The Attorney General’s office doesn’t discuss active cases.
In response to an enquiry from Decafnation about the number and content of affidavits it has received in this case, the Ministry of Attorney General sent this statement:
“The Legal Services Branch of the Ministry of Attorney General is responsible for this case. Applications made to the B.C. Supreme Court will be decided by the Court. As this case is before the courts, we cannot comment further.”
Comox Mayor Paul Ives declined to comment for this story, referring enquiries to town staff.