Col­leagues’ com­plaints lodged as long as 10 years ago

Winnipeg Free Press - - TOP NEWS -

MERIDEL Smith, a for­mer Richard­son Cen­tre for Func­tional Foods and Nu­traceu­ti­cals em­ployee who re­ported di­rectly to Peter Jones, called her two years at the cen­tre “the worst ca­reer and life de­ci­sion I have ever made.”

In a 72-page for­mal com­plaint, which she sent to a Univer­sity of Man­i­toba eq­uity of­fice in­ves­ti­ga­tor in Septem­ber 2009, Smith de­scribed a “toxic en­vi­ron­ment” at RCFFN, in which Jones’ “in­ces­sant abuse of au­thor­ity, power and con­fi­dences” even­tu­ally drove her to seek a med­i­cal leave of ab­sence.

Those abuses in­clude sex­ual dis­crim­i­na­tion, vi­o­la­tions of U of M poli­cies about staff pri­vacy, mis­man­age­ment of fi­nances, and pref­er­en­tial treat­ment of cer­tain stu­dents or em­ploy­ees with whom he had a close re­la­tion­ship.

In the com­plaint, Smith, who cov­ered ad­min­is­tra­tive, bud­get­ing and HR tasks for RCFFN from Jan­uary 2007 to Jan­uary 2009, de­scribed a chaotic work­place in which Jones fre­quently in­tim­i­dated staff to ac­qui­esce to im­pul­sive de­mands.

On sev­eral in­stances, Smith wrote, RCFFN ad­min­is­tra­tive staff were pres­sured to hire cer­tain stu­dents at pay rates far above their qual­i­fi­ca­tions. She de­tailed two in­stances where Jones ap­peared ready to hire can­di­dates who were less than qual­i­fied be­cause he liked the way they looked.

Dur­ing an Au­gust 2007 round of hir­ing, “It was bru­tally clear on who should be hired, but P. Jones was in­sist­ing on the less-qual­i­fied per­son,” Smith wrote, adding: “He laugh­ingly pointed out, can­di­date B would be well-liked by the study vol­un­teers be­cause she was very pretty and, ‘(T)hey would like to look at her.’”

On one oc­ca­sion, Smith wrote she wit­nessed Jones laugh­ing about giv­ing an em­ployee a poor job ref­er­ence to an­other U of M depart­ment, ap­par­ently in an ef­fort to pre­vent her from ob­tain­ing em­ploy­ment else­where.

Smith de­scribed rou­tines where Jones would leave early to go sail­ing in Gimli, tak­ing se­lect em­ploy­ees with him for paid time away. He would in­vite staff to leave early Fri­days to go for drinks with him, Smith said; out­ings that were also paid.

Smith wrote about a July 2008 in­ci­dent where an em­ployee ap­proached her to pay an in­voice for $30,000 at Jones’ ad­vice, which was out­side of her job’s scope. The amount was above $5,000 and needed to be filed through the univer­sity’s pur­chas­ing depart­ment, she said.

Smith said she ex­plained she wasn’t able to help, but Jones al­legedly pres­sured her un­til the cheque was cut.

Dur­ing her med­i­cal leave from Oc­to­ber 2008 to Jan­uary 2009, Smith wrote, Jones got an­other em­ployee to hack into her emails (who later ad­mit­ted as much to her) within days of her de­par­ture. Jones had al­legedly told the em­ployee Smith would not be re­turn­ing to work, though she was only on leave at the time.

Jones also al­legedly dis­sem­i­nated Smith’s doc­tor’s note to other staff, she said, vi­o­lat­ing the Per­sonal Health In­for­ma­tion Act.

“Placed in the iden­ti­cal sit­u­a­tion, I would have out­right re­fused to have knowl­edge of some­one else’s pass­words… and I would have fought ‘tooth and nail’ against any­one forc­ing me to ob­tain this in­for­ma­tion,” she wrote in her com­plaint.

Smith said she took mul­ti­ple con­cerns to the U of M hu­man re­sources depart­ment, but wasn’t sat­is­fied with its re­sponses. She also alerted the U of M om­buds­man, as well as as­so­ciate vice-pres­i­dent of re­search Digvir Jayas.

Smith left her job at RCFFN in Jan­uary 2009, shortly af­ter re­turn­ing from med­i­cal leave.

“It has taken many months for me to get to a point where I could file this com­plaint, where I have been able to write down all of the events that cause me such great dis­tress and to be able to relive these on pa­per,” she wrote in her con­clu­sion. “I re­spect­fully ask the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba to con­sider all mat­ters con­tained in this let­ter with due se­ri­ous­ness and due dili­gence, and to act upon them ac­cord­ingly.”

Smith was later told a U of M lawyer be­lieved her com­plaint “would not re­ally go any­where.”

It doesn’t ap­pear the U of M fol­lowed up on Smith’s con­cerns.

***

Ju­lia Rempel doesn’t be­lieve her en­coun­ters with Peter Jones were the most egre­gious she’s heard about her for­mer boss, but said they bear re­peat­ing to pre­vent fu­ture mis­con­duct.

“If the univer­sity had looked into the com­plaints at any point, or had a bet­ter sys­tem for vic­tims to make for­mal com­plaints, that could have pre­vented the gross mis­use of power, sex­ist treat­ment of women, and ha­rass­ment in the past,” she said.

Jones al­legedly propo­si­tioned Rempel when she was work­ing as his sub­or­di­nate in 2013.

Rempel said Jones asked her to ac­com­pany him on a work out­ing to a Hut­terite colony one evening, and she agreed think­ing oth­ers would be along for the ride. It was just the two of them.

Jones drove them ap­prox­i­mately a half-hour out­side Win­nipeg and dur­ing their meet­ing at the colony, Rempel said he pulled out a bot­tle of scotch.

Rempel al­leged he drank, then drove them back into the city. She said he then asked her to go for din­ner at a restau­rant.

“The more he drinks, the more he gets in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” Rempel said. “He starts to com­ment on my looks, my job, telling me I’m very pretty, very smart.”

Rempel, who was in her early 20s at the time, said she was get­ting un­com­fort­able and be­lieved Jones “was quite drunk at this point.”

Jones al­legedly sug­gested they could be­come a “nutri­tion power cou­ple,” some­thing she had heard he had told other women.

Rempel said she tried to get Jones to call a taxi and go home, but he re­fused. She did not want him driv­ing drunk, so she took his car, drove to her place, and planned to find him a cab from there.

“I never in­vited him in­side, be­cause I didn’t want him to (be there), and that’s when he starts say­ing more men­tion of things such as, ‘He doesn’t be­lieve in monogamy.’ That’s when he tried to lean for­ward to kiss me,” she said.

Rempel said she told Jones to leave, went in­side and left him on the porch. She be­gan group­tex­ting her friends who also worked at RCFFN and called one of them for help.

Jones passed out on her front porch, Rempel said, and her friend’s hus­band came to get him.

The next day at work, Rempel alerted hu­man re­sources about Jones’ be­hav­iour, then later met with them for more dis­cus­sion.

Rempel ul­ti­mately didn’t file a for­mal com­plaint be­cause she was wor­ried about los­ing her job. She lamented Jones was so well-con­nected in the nutri­tion com­mu­nity that com­plain­ing about him could hurt her ca­reer.

“I was put in a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion be­cause at that time… I had re­cently pur­chased a house, I was sin­gle and by my­self. (Jones) is known for lay­ing peo­ple off or fir­ing (peo­ple). You don’t have job se­cu­rity at the Richard­son Cen­tre for Func­tional Foods,” she said.

A U of M hu­man re­sources rep­re­sen­ta­tive sug­gested Rempel speak with the school’s hu­man rights and eq­uity ad­viser.

“Even if no of­fi­cial com­plaint is made, it would be use­ful for her to speak with you; it might help pre­vent any fu­ture in­ci­dents from hap­pen­ing,” the rep­re­sen­ta­tive wrote to Rempel in an email pro­vided to the Free Press.

Rempel said she didn’t meet with the ad­viser and it ap­pears her in­for­mal com­plaint didn’t have any rip­ple ef­fect.

In the weeks fol­low­ing, Jones ap­pears to have kept email­ing Rempel, ask­ing to fol­low-up on their dis­cus­sion from that night.

“We dis­cussed such a vast ar­ray of is­sues over the du­ra­tion of the con­ver­sa­tion (some of which were sen­si­tive and kind of emo­tional), that I thought it not un­rea­son­able to con­sol­i­date some of the out­comes and con­clu­sions drawn from that dis­course,” Jones al­legedly wrote in an email dated Aug. 9, 2013.

Rempel had told him she felt his be­hav­iour was in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

“I guess it is fair to deem that in­ap­pro­pri­ate, but I wanted to let you know that the sug­ges­tion was made only with very best of in­ten­tions. Par­tic­u­larly in en­abling you to meet the ca­reer goals you have set if I can as­sist in any way,” Jones al­legedly wrote, con­clud­ing with: “Hop­ing you have… a re­ally great week­end with­out any en­coun­ter­ing strangers pass­ing out on your front porch.”

That win­ter, Rempel took a med­i­cal leave due to work-re­lated stress. She was laid off in 2015.

By De­cem­ber 2013, a univer­sity HR rep­re­sen­ta­tive had emailed Rempel again, en­cour­ag­ing her to speak to the hu­man rights of­fice, as the school had “re­ceived in­for­ma­tion from an­other com­plainant about Jones and they would re­ally like to be able to have this in­for­ma­tion con­firmed by some­one else.”

***

Af­ter Peter Eck told his su­pe­ri­ors his co-worker, Peter Jones, was sleep­ing with stu­dents, Eck was de­moted.

“I was not very happy with stu­dents hav­ing sex­ual re­la­tion­ships with Peter Jones, be­ing di­rectly su­per­vised by him, and then eval­u­ated and graded,” said Eck, now an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in ge­net­ics at the U of M.

Eck al­leged Jones was not dis­clos­ing his re­la­tion­ships to the univer­sity’s higher-ups.

Dur­ing a work con­fer­ence in 2010, Eck said Jones in­vited him to have a three­some with one of his grad­u­ate stu­dents. He de­clined.

“Sleep­ing with stu­dents is not just frowned upon. In many U.S. in­sti­tu­tions, they’ve got laws re­strict­ing it. Peo­ple can get fired,” Eck said, re­fer­ring to Har­vard Univer­sity as an ex­am­ple. “I was shocked I had raised all these is­sues (with U of M) and it went nowhere.”

Eck said he brought up Jones’ be­hav­iour with mul­ti­ple man­agers from 2010 to 2013, in­clud­ing his depart­ment head, Jim House, head of hu­man ecol­ogy Gus­taaf Seven­huisen, dean of grad­u­ate stud­ies Jay Do­er­ing (who is now the as­so­ciate vice-pres­i­dent of part­ner­ships), and vice-pres­i­dent of re­search and in­ter­na­tional Digvir Jayas.

Af­ter speak­ing out, he lost his role as Canada Re­search Chair in nu­trige­nomics. Though he can’t trace a di­rect line from los­ing that job to his dis­putes with Jones, Eck said he sus­pects his com­plaints to man­age­ment af­fected his job.

Eck be­lieves weak work­place poli­cies at the U of M about re­la­tion­ships be­tween staff and stu­dents helped shield Jones.

“Ev­ery­thing (Jones) did, he can do. It’s so vague in our in­sti­tu­tions at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba that he can do it,” Eck said. “Every­body knows what’s hap­pen­ing, but no­body talks about it.”

Eck moved his lab and of­fice out of the RCFFN in early 2014.

Since his de­par­ture, Eck said RCFFN stu­dents have been ap­proach­ing him with more sto­ries about run-ins with Jones. Some of those stu­dents be­gan seek­ing le­gal ad­vice.

Eck in­sisted the univer­sity should hire an ex­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tor or om­buds­man to han­dle the many com­plaints be­cause in­ves­ti­gat­ing in­ter­nally has so far pro­duced no re­sults.

RUTH BON­NEVILLE / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

U of M Prof. Peter Eck says he com­plained about Peter Jones mul­ti­ple times from 2010 to 2013. He says Jones was hav­ing re­la­tion­ships with his stu­dents.

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