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Gallery lawsuit prompts reversal of Kelowna arts hiring

05/04/2012 04:55 EDT | Updated 07/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Kelowna's Rotary Centre for the Arts is withdrawing a job offer to former Art Gallery of Calgary CEO Valerie Cooper after learning she is being sued for allegedly misappropriating nearly $500,000.

According to a civil claim filed in Alberta Court of Queen's Bench, the Calgary gallery put Cooper on paid administrative leave on March 13 after its board was notified Calgary police were investigating Cooper for the misappropriation of gallery funds.

Cooper then applied for the position of general manager at Kelowna's Rotary Centre for the Arts, after the centre's former executive director Tracie Ward died of cancer in April.

The centre announced Cooper would be the new general manager on Wednesday.

But then Steven Faigan, president of the Kelowna Visual and Performing Arts Centre Society — which manages the RCA's operations — discovered Cooper's legal troubles less than a day later.

Faigan told the CBC he spoke with Cooper Thursday evening and told her they were withdrawing the job offer.

"Recent allegations surrounding Valerie Cooper have been brought forward by the media that have led to this expedient decision by the board. Valerie Cooper is not an employee at the RCA at this point in time," said Faigan on Friday morning.

Faigan said the board was shocked to learn Cooper had misled them.

He said Cooper was interviewed for over an hour by staff in Kelowna on April 21.

Faigan said the board did the appropriate reference checks; a human resources committee verified her references and everything seemed above board until he was told otherwise Thursday evening.

Funds allegedly spent on rent, massages, clothing

According to the statement of claim against Cooper, the Art Gallery of Calgary alleges she diverted $497,586 for her personal use, by falsifying expenses between 2006 and 2012.

Those expenses allegedly included payments on her downtown condo, unauthorized travel, a loan to the gallery from Cooper for $124,000 that was repaid but never existed in the first place, massages, credit card fees, clothing and home maintenance and $184,000 for art purchased and framed but never received by the gallery.

"The Board received constant reports from the defendant [Cooper] that the plaintiff [the gallery] was in dire financial straits and from time to time other members of the board did in fact make personal loans, without interest, to the plaintiff [the gallery] to cover operating expenses pending receipt of grant funds," reads the statement of claim.

The documents say the board relied on Cooper to run the gallery and board members didn't, and had no reason to, suspect Cooper was misappropriating funds.

It was only when approached by Calgary police that they did an internal audit of the art gallery's finances, and discovered $497,586 was missing.

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