Valerie Cooper, the former president and CEO of the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC), who left her post suddenly without explanation in March, is being sued by the gallery in order to retrieve $500,000 it alleges Cooper stole from the non-profit in the form of falsified expenses starting in 2006.
The civil suit against Cooper, outlined in court documents obtained by Fast Forward Weekly, alleges she charged the gallery for a litany of expenses, from massages and parking, to $12,126 worth of artwork that, according to an affidavit by board chair Gwen Randall, ended up on Cooper’s condo walls, $185,129 of “fictitious framing,” $66,978 of unauthorized travel, $89,250 towards rent on her downtown condo, and non-existent loan repayments to the tune of $124,000.
The allegations were first brought to the attention of AGC board member David Rehn by the Calgary Police Service. “On March 13th, 2012, Mr. Rehn reported to a meeting of the Board of Directors for the AGC that at a meeting with the Calgary Police Service, he had been shown a series of invoices on the letterhead of Masters Gallery, which is a commercial gallery and framing service in the City of Calgary. The invoices totalled $106,515.11. The invoices were handwritten and described numerous framing assignments and the purchase of pieces of original art. Each of the invoices in question was marked paid,” reads the affidavit by AGC board chair Gwen Randall.
The statement goes on to say that Rehn was then shown information from Cooper’s personal bank account, accessed through a court order, that shows cheques from the AGC for those amounts were deposited into Cooper’s account.
When contacted by Fast Forward Weekly, a staff member at Masters Gallery said no one would comment on the matter, and that everyone was busy and would be for some time.
Former staff members of the AGC who were contacted by Fast Forward Weekly would not speak on the record, fearing legal repercussions. None of those contacted said they were surprised by the allegations, and some had left the gallery due to ethical concerns.
The AGC has been tight-lipped on Cooper’s departure. The gallery didn’t even acknowledge the vacancy until the end of March when the statement of claim against Cooper was filed with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary, despite the fact she was put on administrative leave on March 13.
Brian Hearst, who was the board treasurer and is currently the managing director of the gallery, wouldn’t comment on Cooper’s departure when contacted at the beginning of April.
Fast Forward Weekly has repeatedly attempted to contact Hearst since acquiring the documents, as well as board members Randall and Rehn. According to Nisha Sridhar, manager of communications and marketing at the AGC, the board was travelling in Russia on an art tour and members were unavailable.
There are questions around the “non-approved travel” expenses listed in a “funds recoverable analysis” conducted by Hearst, who is a chartered accountant, after the allegations were first brought to the board by the police. In March 2008, Cooper travelled to Jerusalem for a World Federation of Friends of Museums congress, where she spoke on a panel with Donale Gandossi, a current AGC board member who was board chair at the time. The trip was highlighted by Gandossi in the gallery’s 2008 annual report. It’s unclear why $1,364 of expenses for that trip are included as non-approved travel when the chair was with Cooper at the time.
There are other questions related to board oversight. How was Cooper allegedly able to reimburse herself for $124,000 of loans that never existed? If the allegations are true, how was she able to submit handwritten invoices totalling over $100,000 without raising a red flag?
According to Randall’s affidavit, the reason was misplaced trust. “From the time of the commencement of her employment, the Defendant cultivated personal relationships with a number of the members of the Board of Directors of the AGC, including this deponent,” reads the document. “Because of a personal relationship between the Defendant and members of the Board of Directors, and because of the complete trust imposed by the Board of Directors upon the Defendant to manage the affairs of the AGC, neither I, nor other members of the Board, to my knowledge, had any reason to suspect that the Defendant was converting AGC funds to her personal use.”
The statement of claim filed with the court says that the board received constant reports on the gallery’s “dire financial straits” from Cooper, and that “from time to time other members of the Board did in fact make personal loans, without interest, to the Plaintiff [AGC] to cover operating expenses pending receipt of grant funds.”
Although there were rumours in the arts community about financial irregularities at the gallery, there was never any evidence to back up those claims. Perusing the online comments on a 2008 Fast Forward Weekly story on problems at the gallery shows a number of people concerned about the gallery’s finances.
In that same story, issues including employee intimidation, damage to artwork, a focus on fundraising over programming and the high turnover of staff, particularly in curators, were highlighted. Considering the amount of evidence that something was amiss in the gallery’s management, how was it that Cooper maintained the trust of the board?
In addition to the allegations that Cooper made off with a sizable chunk of money, Randall’s affidavit also says that the AGC security cameras caught Cooper returning to the gallery after she was suspended and recorded her departure five hours later. “The video tape clearly shows the Defendant leaving the AGC with two cardboard boxes,” reads the statement. “AGC has been unable to locate its payables file for the year 2012. Certain personnel files of employees of AGC also cannot be located.”
The gallery has requested the return of the materials, but has yet to see the documents.
Const. Tanya Bertulli of the Economic Crimes Unit of the Calgary Police Service would only say that there is an active investigation into the allegations against Cooper. No criminal charges have been laid and the allegations against Cooper laid out in the civil suit by the Art Gallery of Calgary have yet to be proven in court.
When reached by telephone, Cooper curtly declined to comment on the matter.