Rowena Santos and Patrick Brown fail to stop investigation into BramptonU from moving forward

·12 min read

Despite the efforts of Councillor Rowena Santos, Brampton council passed a motion during a special council meeting on Tuesday to supply a forensic auditor with whatever relevant information is needed, following a council steering committee meeting with the unnamed third-party investigator.

Councillors recently learned Santos and Mayor Patrick Brown are directly linked to the two firms that billed more than $600,000 for work that either was not completed, or failed to meet the objectives of the BramptonU project.

It was revealed that Santos engaged her “mentor” David Wheeler, without council’s knowledge, to do the work and that he began billing the City for overseas travel and accommodation (it’s unclear where) before he even had a contract.

The other firm, Stakeholder Research Associates, employed Rob Godfrey as a senior associate when it was given a contract that was only supposed to be for $170,000 to do work to help launch BramptonU. Despite no council approval, and without the knowledge of a majority of councillors, Godfrey’s firm was given more than $500,000, and much of the work was never received. Brown has publicly stated that Godfrey, son of Postmedia Chair Paul Godfrey, is one of his closest confidantes and a key political advisor.

The forensic investigation through an independent audit firm was ordered May 18 by Brampton council to look into the mishandling of $629,000 for the failed Brampton University plan, following a staff report that showed much of the work was never received and some of it arrived 17 months late, while at least one of the two firms was not qualified for the lucrative job. Questions have also been raised about the quality of the work that was done.

Council had previously ordered the City’s integrity commissioner to investigate Santos, after learning about her conduct behind the scenes to get her close friend the lucrative work, despite his lack of qualifications.

When the staff report came forward last month, some members of council expressed their anger when they found out much of the work that cost taxpayers about $629,000 was never even done, and that the firms with ties to Brown and Santos were paid despite not meeting their obligations.

The majority of councillors supported a forensic investigation by an outside firm, to be managed by a three-member council steering committee—Pat Fortini, Gurpreet Dhillon and Jeff Bowman.

Interim CAO Paul Morrison said he reached out to a forensic firm to do the investigation work to get to the bottom of what happened.

“After that we set up a meeting with the three councillors, [Dhillon], Fortini and Bowman, to meet with the accounting firm to give their high level view of what needed to be done with the work.” Morrison said.

“Now we’ll be moving onto the next phase which we will meet with the accounting firm once more when they gather some information and we’ll work out the exact scope and the exact price for the work to be done in conjunction with… myself, and the three councillors.”

Morrison said the forensic firm has been given authority to ask for materials, but detailed work will begin once the steering committee establishes the comprehensive terms of reference for the work.

“We are at a stage now where we’re going to be sitting down with the investigative audit firm, we will be determining the scope and I will bring the scope back to council.”

His remarks seemed to be out of step with the intention of council members who have made it clear that the steering committee, not the interim CAO, who was only placed in the role by council as a temporary fill-in until a qualified CAO is hired, will manage the investigation and report back to full council.

Councillor Jeff Bowman previously told The Pointer that it is crucial for outside investigators to have complete independence from staff, as it was senior employees who mishandled the questionable BramptonU file, while he and some other elected officials responsible for protecting taxpayers were kept in the dark.

“We need to get this right,” he said. “There are a lot of questions about how this was handled away from the oversight of a majority of councillors.”

The former CAO, David Barrick, recruited by Brown despite his disturbing track record in Niagara, was fired in February. A number of other senior staff no longer work for the City, after the majority group of council members vowed to clean up City Hall following two disturbing years under Barrick.

Bowman, Fortini, Singh, Martin Medeiros, Charmaine Williams and Doug Whillans all signed an open letter in February vowing to restore good local government after a series of scandals and allegations of staff misconduct under Barrick.

The idea for an independent BramptonU, pushed by Mayor Brown, Santos and Councillor Harkirat Singh, and backed by Barrick for two years, was questioned from the start as it did not conform to provincial guidelines that demand new universities be launched in partnership with existing ones.

It’s now clear that those behind the plan never even tried to get direction from the Province, which has ultimate authority over post-secondary expansion.

Many other questions about their claims and those of Wheeler, the consultant with close ties to Santos, have swirled around the doomed plan, which other councillors have said has now been abandoned.

Despite the previous council resolution to have Santos investigated by the integrity commissioner for her role in the mishandled BramptonU project, she has continued to take part in debates and votes on the matter. Her interference appears to be a clear conflict of interest under provincial law, which states a councillor has to declare a conflict and remove themself from any participation in matters where they have a pecuniary interest. Santos could lose salary if her conduct on the file is deemed to have violated the City’s code of conduct, putting her in a clear conflict of interest.

That has not stopped her from openly debating the issue and taking part in votes on the matter. Under provincial law, she can be permanently removed from office if she violates the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

On Tuesday, during the special meeting to deal with the investigation, both Santos and her closest council ally Paul Vicente objected to the work of the steering committee, stating they believe it should have just been the acting CAO that met with the firm.

When the idea for the steering committee was first brought to council on May 18, Santos tried to get her allies, Councillor Michael Palleschi and Vicente on the committee, but she was voted down.

Palleschi spoke against the audit on Tuesday, saying he never supported it to begin with.

“If I was on the steering committee I certainly wouldn’t have taken part in meeting with any auditors directly without staff there—in fact I wouldn’t have done it at all,” Palleschi said, failing to explain why he does not want to protect taxpayers after almost $630,000 of their money was spent on firms that didn’t meet their obligations and have close ties to Santos and Brown.

Councillor Bowman explained to The Pointer Thursday the framework for the steering committee and the need for councillors to ensure taxpayers are protected by a proper investigation, referring to an earlier probe by Deloitte into allegations of widespread staff misconduct under Barrick (the CAO) and Brown brought forward by a senior employee.

Santos and Brown protected Barrick throughout the Deloitte investigation process, trying to limit its scope and timeframe. It allowed staff under Barrick’s authority to pick the firm, failed to even look into the allegations against Brown, did not complete many of the interviews with complainants and let Barrick off the hook despite admitting his behaviour was deeply disturbing. Deloitte said because he simply rewrote the rules as he broke them the firm could not make any substantial findings against Barrick. Many of the concerns raised by some councillors, stemming from the whistleblower’s allegations, were never looked into.

“We didn’t have a steering committee for the Deloitte report, which lacked the specific clarity around areas council wanted investigated to protect the taxpayers we represent,” Bowman said Thursday. “In this case, the steering committee is clear on what council wants investigated: how the BramptonU idea came about, how the RFP was formulated, how the firms were selected, who was supposed to make sure the work was done, who authorized the tripling of the budget without council’s knowledge, who authorized the cheques despite the work being incomplete and if there was any outside lobbying by members of council.”

Bowman said the steering committee will ensure taxpayers are protected this time and that the majority group of councillors are committed to “restoring the trust” among taxpayers that has been “broken”.

“Some of the staff involved are no longer at City Hall.”

At the Tuesday special meeting, Santos said she didn’t think it was right for councillors on the steering committee to meet directly with the outside investigation firm.

“There is nowhere in the motion that it says that councillors should meet directly with the auditor, Mr. Clerk can you just clarify that,” Santos asked.

But City Clerk Peter Fay disagreed with her, stating the council resolution was clear in establishing the steering committee, its scope and role to ensure the forensic audit work meets the expectations of council.

“My view and my advice includes meeting with and giving direction and steering the work of the forensic auditor, whoever that firm shall be,” Fay told her.

The answer didn’t satisfy Santos.

“I honestly don’t think I’ll be supporting the motion coming forward because I’m very concerned that this process is now flawed,” she replied.

Councillor Medeiros called her comment “rich”, pointing out that it was Santos, in 2019, who engaged her friend Wheeler to do the work, without ever telling the majority of councillors or getting approval.

“We’re in this mess because of what you’re accusing some of your colleagues and some of the councillors who just spoke before, talking about giving direction, meeting without contracts—that is exactly [why] we’re here today and that’s why we’re having this investigation,” Medeiros said.

He continued, referring to information councillors only found out about recently, including that Wheeler was billing the City for travel expenses long before he was even hired in a questionable procurement process for BramptonU that will also be part of the investigation being managed by the steering committee.

“We had a consultant fly here, across transatlantic to come here, the contract wasn’t even signed, and [he] bills the City for a contract that I suppose he expected he was going to win so he had to come to our country to hang out and wait to see if he wins the contract… I was the mover of the motion. The intent from day one, when I moved this motion, was that there were three appointed councillors [to ensure the investigation gets done]."

Councillor Fortini also responded to Santos.

“At the end of the day when we find invoices missing and cheques written every three-to-five days and we just let it go, then let’s let everything go,” Fortini said. “This is taxpayers' money… we have to find out what was going on and the reason the steering committee came on is because we have to do it quick.”

He said taxpayers deserve answers as soon as possible.

“These things here have to come up within one month, that’s why we pushed for these meetings. All three councillors, Bowman, myself and Dhillon along with the CAO, we’re available 24 hours, we want to have meetings quickly, as fast as we can so they can start the process and get it done.”

He then pointed out what Santos had done on the BramptonU file in 2019, when he, other members and taxpayers were never told she was meeting with her friend, who was eventually given a $100,000 contract with little to show for it.

“We had other councillors meet with other staff before this happened on the BramptonU and that’s why we’re in the mess. There was no direction given to meet with the BramptonU people and come here before contracts were even signed.”

The first part of the motion passed during Tuesday’s special meeting authorized disclosure of all closed session records, including audio tapes specific to the BramptonU file, to the forensic audit team upon request.

The second was that council direct the acting CAO to inform all commissioners and directors of the forensic investigation, directing them and their staff to grant full access to any and all records in regard to BramptonU which may be requested by the forensic audit team, and that participation in good faith by any employee or former employee of the City of Brampton in the investigation shall not be deemed to be a breach of any employment or post-employment agreement.

The motions to move forward with the investigation under the steering committee’s management carried 6-5 and were put forward by Councillor Bowman, seconded by Dhillon.

In favour were councillors Whillans, Bowman, Medeiros, Williams, Fortini and Dhillon.

Against were Santos, Vicente, Palleschi, Singh and Mayor Brown.

Email: jessica.durling@thepointer.com

Twitter: @JessicaRDurling

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