After a series of complaints to the Ontario Ombudsman about cancelled investigations into the mishandling of the Brampton University project and other large contracts paid by taxpayers to friends of Mayor Patrick Brown and Councillor Rowena Santos, the provincial Ombudsman has issued another letter to City Council advising members to complete the investigations.
During a council meeting Wednesday, Brown lied about the investigations, which he moved to cancel in August, and the Ombudsman’s involvement.
At the end of August, Brown convened a last-minute special council meeting on a Friday afternoon and passed two motions terminating the forensic investigations into the mishandling of $629,000 for the since-abandoned Brampton University project, as well as a half-dozen other procurements Brown was involved with. The investigations were launched by a majority of council last spring when the same six councillors released a public letter stating they felt democracy in Brampton was “under siege” as a result of Brown’s questionable leadership.
Whistleblowers had levelled damning allegations against Brown— and a former senior City Hall staffer provided evidence of his wrongdoing.
The six councillors who called for the investigations also witnessed disturbing conduct by the mayor, including his refusal to allow motions to be voted on during council meetings, claiming two-thirds of council had to support the process.
After the acting CAO at the time brought forward a shocking report last spring that showed work to launch a new university, that was supposed to be done by an external firm whose point person turned out to be one of Brown’s closest friends, was never done and that he was paid three times what council had approved, the six members took the Ontario Ombudsman’s advice and hired third-party investigators to probe a half-dozen questionable procurements Brown was involved with; Santos had also been involved in the process to contract some of the university work.
The investigations were underway, and publicly reported updates by the external firm probing the procurements for the university project revealed widespread violations, while it was determined Brown had a close relationship with one of the two consultants hired and Santos with the other, providing an advantage to their friends which other bidders did not have. The relationships were never disclosed to council when the contracts were handed out.
The investigators were zeroing in on Brown’s relationship with Rob Godfrey, whose firm was given about $500,000, instead of the $170,000 approved by council, for work that was never done.
Then, in August, when two of the council members were not present at the last-minute meeting Brown called (Gurpreet Dhillon said he was unable to attend and Charmaine Williams had vacated her role after winning a seat as a Brampton MPP in the June provincial election) he pushed the cancellations through with 5-4 votes, aided by the same four councillors who consistently supported the mayor in trying to prevent the investigations in the first place, when Santos, Harkirat Singh, Michael Palleschi and Paul Vicente joined Brown in voting against the probes called by the other six members.
In a letter sent to council and included on its agenda for this past Wednesday’s meeting (on May 17), the Ontario Ombudsman expressed concern about council’s previous decision, led by Brown, to cancel the investigations into the questionable procurements.
“Based on our review in this case, we are writing to express our Office’s concern that there are unaddressed issues with respect to the BramptonU initiative and RFP procurement processes that have not been thoroughly investigated, given the previous council’s decisions to cancel these audits prior to finalization,” the letter reads.
After the letter was brought to Council Wednesday, Brown demanded an apology—from who is unclear.
“The Ombudsman looked at defamatory allegations towards good people and said it wasn’t worthy of that investigation. Some apologies are owed,” he said, referring to a May 6, 2022 letter from the Ombudsman prior to his motions to cancel the numerous investigations.
His claim that the Ombudsman deemed the controversial procurement matters involving millions of taxpayer dollars unworthy of investigation is blatantly false. The letter, which is publicly available on the City’s website, does not contain these words. The previous letter from the Ombudsman makes no such reference to the matters in question.
The Ombudsman did not say the BramptonU project and the other procurements being probed were unworthy of the investigations. The Ombudsman has, in fact, advised council members to have the questionable contracts investigated.
“The Ombudsman encourages the City to revisit its decision to cancel these audits and take steps to ensure any outstanding concerns are comprehensively investigated and addressed at the municipal level.”
Despite the direction from the Ontario Ombudsman to complete the investigations Brown cancelled, he said the opposite on Wednesday, during the public council meeting.
Contrary to Brown’s lie, claiming on Wednesday when the Ombudsman’s letter was being addressed by Council, that Ontario’s watchdog said the matter “wasn’t worthy” of investigation, the letter speaks for itself: “We would also like to remind council of the best practices we have identified regarding independent investigations and non-competitive procurement practices. As our Office has previously noted, it is vital that third-party investigators have real and perceived independence to conduct their work in a fair and impartial manner. Specifically, investigators should be given sufficient time and resources to conduct a fulsome investigation. This leads to a better, more thorough investigation and increases the public’s confidence in the investigative process and its findings. Contrary to these best practices, council voted to cancel multiple ongoing forensic audits prior to their completion.”
Brown has repeatedly made the same false claims in the past. In October, while appearing on iHeartRadio’s Jerry Agar Show, he made the same claim that the provincial Ombudsman had said the matter “wasn’t worth investigating.”
Brown made further false claims during Wednesday’s meeting.
“When I see this reminder, that the Ombudsman threw it out, not even wanting to investigate it, it just goes back to thinking about the good people that had their reputations damaged based on what has now been investigated numerous times as false allegations,” Brown continued.
Once again, his claim is blatantly false.
The Ombudsman did not “throw out” the investigation, and in a previous correspondence with the City regarding the allegations against Brown and other current and former senior staff, the Ombudsman encouraged council to use its own investigative powers to probe the allegations. But after the recommendation, which six former councillors followed, Brown and his four allies took the opportunity when two of those members could not vote, to shut down all the investigations.
Brown called the investigations he cancelled a “smear campaign”.
“His performance on Wednesday at a public meeting, in front of Brampton residents, just shows what he really thinks of them,” former senior city staffer Nikki Kaur, who brought forward evidence of wrongdoing by Brown and ran against him in October’s municipal election, said. “He calls it a ‘smear campaign’ to find out how his close friend was handed a contract, paid almost $400,000 more than what council approved, and never even did the work. And what about all the other contracts handed to his other friends and associates; where did all that money go? He wants to make sure the hardworking Brampton residents who paid for all of it, never find out.
“His string of misleading statements was no surprise to anyone who has followed his political career. Blatantly fabricating comments to twist things completely around is exactly what he does.”
Despite concerns raised by the Ombudsman about the unexpected cancellation of the investigations in August, led by Brown, the letter sent by the highest municipal watchdog in the province does not commit to investigating the scandal which garnered significant public attention. Instead, the letter recommends the City of Brampton finish the independent investigations, referring to previous reports from the Ombudsman into questionable procurements in the City of Brampton, which recommended methods for improving policies in the municipality. At the top of that list is the appointment of a full-time auditor general.
The letter included on Wednesday’s agenda refers to a 2017 report that looked into Brampton’s procurement procedures and proposed improvements. A section of the letter, quoting the earlier report, highlights that “Unless adequate and transparent accountability measures exist to demonstrate that municipal administrators have followed a fair process and obtained good value for taxpayer money, distrust can arise.”
“It is unfortunate that five years after that report, we are receiving complaints that express distrust in Brampton’s procurement practices,” the Ombudsman’s latest letter, dated May 8, reads.
The disturbing staff report last year revealed much of the work for the Brampton University project was not completed, and the point of contact for one of the two firms contracted for the job had close ties to Brown, and the other one to Santos.
Kaur said in a Council meeting last year, when she was working for the City, that Rob Godfrey, a close friend of Brown and the point of contact for Stakeholder Research Associates (SRA), made demands for payment that she was pressured to approve despite the lack of work that was supposed to have been completed under the contract. The staff report revealed Godfrey’s firm received about three times the amount approved by council—$360,000 more than what he was supposed to get. Councillors were never told about the extra payments and investigators were trying to determine who approved them, right before Brown moved to cancel the probes.
“I saw it with my own eyes when Patrick Brown and the staff he hired from outside Brampton asked me to carry out their abuse. That’s why I came forward as a whistleblower and decided to run against him for mayor, and what happened? I was fired the day after the election,” Kaur said.
The second company that received a contract was the Academy for Sustainable Innovation (ASI). Its co-founder, David Wheeler, had taught Santos as a post-secondary business instructor. Santos, who previously called him her mentor, helped Wheeler in a 2017 election campaign when he ran for public office in Nova Scotia.
Documents show Santos helped get Wheeler the $100,000 contract for the failed Brampton University project. ASI has since said it had nothing to do with the Brampton University project and that Wheeler pursued the work on his own.
Brown and Councillor Santos did not disclose their close ties to the individuals with the two firms when they were contracted for the completion of the Brampton University project in 2019.
Both Wheeler and Godfrey’s firms were awarded contracts in October of 2019, after a bidding contest that began on October 2 of the same year.
The forensic investigation into the Brampton University contracts, done by Froese Forensic Partners Ltd., found there was an “unfair advantage provided to SRA and ASI within the procurement process for RFP2019-079 and RFP2019-080, as Dr. Wheeler had knowledge, information and relationships that were not available to other vendors and the time period for submitting proposals, although meeting minimum policy limits, also favoured Dr. Wheeler.”
The investigators found Godfrey’s firm was in communication with Brown’s office regarding the project months before the open bidding process began. His firm was supposed to receive a $170,000 contract but instead ended up getting more than $500,000 from Brampton taxpayers.
Investigations into potential conflicts of interests were still ongoing, and were meant to be completed and released before the end of September 2022, before the October 24 municipal election, but were shut down by Brown before that. Originally the investigation into the Brampton University project was to cost the City $100,000, but the expected amount later increased to around $150,000.
Former Brampton councillor Jeff Bowman was among those who filed a complaint to the Ombudsman after the special meeting in August when he voted against cancelling the investigations.
“I just felt that from what I saw, there was a complete conflict of interest in the Mayor putting the motion forward to cancel an audit that he was named in, and then voting on it,” he said. “That’s what actually led me to write the letter to the Ombudsman.”
Under the Ombudsman Act, the provincial Ombudsman has “broad discretion to decide whether or not to investigate a complaint.” However, its latest letter only reiterates previously mentioned best practices and merely expresses concern over Council’s misconduct. It remains unclear why the Ombudsman has not launched a full investigation, despite the clear attempt by Brown to block any probe into his conduct.
“We heard in council that the investigations were about 75 percent complete, so I would hope that the Ombudsman would look at that and say okay, we will have the investigations completed, and we will come up with findings,” Bowman said. “That’s up to them. They do have the power to do that, and in this case, it doesn’t look like that power will be exercised, unfortunately.”
The Pointer reached out to the Ombudsman to understand why, despite having the authority to investigate municipalities when council-directed efforts for accountability, under the advice of the Ombudsman, are shut down by the very people implicated. The Ombudsman simply made reference to the letter and refused to comment further on the matter.
“The Ombudsman directed Council to launch the investigations, but now it’s time for the Ombudsman to come in and pick up those investigations where they were left,” Kaur said. “All other avenues have been exhausted, Patrick Brown has choked them off. Now, every Brampton resident should demand the Ombudsman finish what the investigators started so City Hall starts working for them, not Patrick Brown and his friends.”
In Wednesday’s Council meeting, Brown put forward a motion for the Ombudsman’s best practices related to third-party audits, referenced in its latest letter, to be “referred to Budget Committee” so staff can calculate the cost of following the Ombudsman’s advice, and recoup such costs, “which were brought about by false and defamatory remarks and actions against staff.” This passed unanimously by Council in an 11-0 vote.
Brown has never provided any evidence to back up his assertions that the reporting and findings of the partial investigations are false.
Councillor Martin Medeiros, earlier in the meeting, attempted to refer the Ombudsman’s letter to the City’s audit committee for consideration so some sort of accountability on behalf of Brampton taxpayers could possibly be pursued. Only he and Councillor Pat Fortini supported the move which was defeated in a 9-2 vote. Both of them were part of the effort last year to call the investigations.
Despite being implicated in the investigations that were shut down, Brown and Santos participated in the vote to make sure the City’s own auditors do not probe the matter.
Before his effort was defeated by Brown, Santos and their allies, Medeiros said, “I think the bare minimum that we should do with this, where you have an Ombudsman suggest that they encourage us to continue on improving some of the practices, is just simply sending it to the audit committee and have it considered.”
By Samanah Ali, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on May 20, 2023 at 10:57