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Audit reveals accountability gaps in Brampton. Mayor calls it a ‘witch hunt’

Calls for an investigation into how Brampton’s municipal government spends millions of taxpayer dollars have resurfaced, after a routine audit revealed a lack of accountability and transparency while awarding contracts. 

The internal audit report, produced by city staff and dated Feb. 6, shows sole-source contracts totalling millions were awarded without key documents needed to justify the purchases. 

The audit, which the city is mandated to perform every five years, also raises alarms about the fact the city didn’t take conflicts of interest into consideration with sole-source contracts — “leading to potential oversight in managing the relevant risks.”

The findings have not been discussed at any subsequent council meetings, and Mayor Patrick Brown dismissed questions about a possible investigation into the irregularities, instead calling it a “political[ly]-driven witch hunt” in a statement to CBC Toronto. 

“That’s peculiar,” said Zachary Spicer, an associate professor of public policy and administration at York University. 

“Residents ought to know about where the taxpayer money is going,” he said. “No politician should be resisting such investigations.”

Former councillor Jeff Bowman called council’s efforts to shut down past investigations “a total cover up,” one he says continues to pave the way for irregularities in procurement processes and possible conflicts of interest.

During his eight years as a councillor, Bowman voted in favour of launching investigations into potentially problematic procurement practices, and he helped lead a steering committee that chose third-party investigators to dig deeper.

After investigations into BramptonU, the appointment of integrity commissioner Muneeza Sheikh and the procurement of COVID-19 supplies were cancelled, among others, Bowman implored Queen’s Park to intervene and complained to the provincial ombudsman.

“The evidence that was in those reports has been sort of brushed under the carpet and never to be seen again,” Bowman said. 

In his statement, Brown said he’s been “cleaning up” since taking office. 

“We are now ensuring nepotism is not permitted at city hall and I appointed Coun. Keenan to chair the audit committee to make sure all government work goes out to tender in a transparent and competitive manner,” he said.

City made purchases without key docs: audit 

The city’s internal audit department analyzed 16 sole-source procurements from September 2023 and found that four were missing key documents or contained incorrect documents. Nonetheless, staff proceeded with the nearly $900,000 in contracts.

None of the contracts included declarations of potential conflict of interest, which are not required by city bylaws for limited tendering or non-competitive sole-source contracts.

That’s not uncommon for communities where “it can be challenging to find competitive tenders,” Spicer said.

However, Brampton bylaws do require purchases above $25,000 go through a competitive process, and the audit found that two contracts valued at $685,000 did not.

Former Brampton councillor Jeff Bowman
Former councillor Jeff Bowman called council’s efforts to shut down past investigations ‘a total cover up,’ one he says continues to pave the way for irregularities in procurement processes and possible conflicts of interest. (Herman Custodio)

“We need to be accountable for the stuff we are responsible for,” said Coun. Dennis Keenan during a February meeting of the internal audit committee he chairs. 

The committee did not discuss plans to address the audit’s findings and its accompanying recommendations. Keenan did not respond to CBC Toronto’s requests for comment.

Brampton procurement process criticized

The audit is “a wake-up call for all of us to know that we can do things better and tighten rules,” said Coun. Martin Medeiros in an interview with CBC Toronto.

He says given the city’s history of questionable decision-making, particularly on the BramptonU file, council needs to be more transparent and accountable. 

In 2021, after three years and nearly $630,000 spent on marketing, procurement and research, the city scrapped its plans to build a university in Brampton amid mounting costs.

In 2022, when staff couldn’t find records for some payments associated with BramptonU, council voted to launch an independent forensic audit. A preliminary report that August revealed a conflict of interest between Coun. Rowena Santos and her “friend and mentor” David Wheeler. 

Wheeler worked for the Academy of Sustainable Innovation, a consultancy group that received a city contract associated with BramptonU research, after Santos helped him with “cleaning the presentation up.” 

Martin Medeiros
Coun. Martin Medeiros told CBC Toronto that an internal city audit is ‘a wake-up call for all of us to know that we can do things better and tighten rules.’ (Talia Ricci/CBC )

The preliminary audit also found the city paid for Wheeler to take a trip abroad, in violation of municipal policies and procedures. 

ASI did not respond to requests for comment from CBC Toronto. In an interview, Wheeler categorically denied all irregularities found in the forensic audit and said he was a victim of “an outbreak of toxic politics.”

Wheeler told CBC Toronto that initially he was invited by Brown and the city’s then-chief administrative officer to discuss preliminary plans for BramptonU.

“The audit should’ve never been permissioned, there was never any basis for it,” he said.

At the time, Santos told the Brampton Guardian that “the draft report misrepresents the city’s rules and policies… I proactively sought advice [from] the city’s integrity commissioner, who stated clearly that I had no pecuniary conflict of interest in regards to any aspect of the BramptonU advocacy work.” 

In August 2022, Brown and Santos voted to shut down the investigation — a move some staff and councillors, Medeiros included, called “illegal,” since the pair’s own actions were under investigation. 

In total, city staff said over $150,000 was spent on the investigation, the final results of which have never been made public. 

David Wheeler
Education consultant David Wheeler, who worked for ASI on research related to BramptonU, says he categorically rejects all irregularities found in an independent forensic audit in 2022. (Submitted by David Wheeler)

Brown dismissed the concerns about that decision in his statement to CBC Toronto.  

“The entire process was political,” he said. “There was no conflict of interest. Councillor Santos verified that with the Integrity Commissioner before Council unanimously voted to embark on the Brampton U lobbying. This was a pre election stunt.” 

Politicians should ‘welcome’ audits, prof says

Santos did not respond to questions about whether she would support an investigation into the irregularities the recent audit found. She dismissed critics who say the city’s leaders haven’t learned from their own history.

“A perpetually-unhappy group of politicians raised this matter before the election,” she said. “The voters of Brampton heard what they had to say – and voted accordingly. They voted to move on. This group should do so.”

Councillor Rowena Santos
Coun. Rowena Santos came under fire in 2022 after a financial forensic audit found conflict of interest between her and the recipient of a consultancy contract related to BramptonU. She called her critics ‘perpetually unhappy politicians’ who need to ‘move on.’ (Submitted by Rowena Santos)

Meanwhile, Brown’s statement said, “The voters resoundingly rejected the crooked old guard behind this harassment of Councillor Santos. And I must say good riddance.”

Spicer says audits and investigations are “a good thing” that happen regularly and should be normalised. 

“Investigations show regularities or show gaps in policy or opportunities to improve processes,” he said, adding that politicians “should welcome that.” 

Does Brampton need an auditor general?

Since 2017, the Ontario Ombudsman’s office has repeatedly recommended that Brampton appoint an auditor general to look into irregularities and provide advice regarding the stewardship of public funds. The city has not done so.

Beginning after complaints about the aborted BramptonU investigation, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé — who has the authority to launch an investigation but has so far opted not to — wrote to the city expressing concerns about its procurement processes. 

Spicer says the mayor needs to understand he is not running a “small little organization” but a big, complex city — the fastest-growing one in Canada, Statistics Canada says — one that “employs thousands of people. There are millions [of dollars] involved.” 

He says it’s time Brampton’s council considers appointing an auditor general. 

“Just the very presence of someone who is independent and sort of external and has the authority to look through contracts and budgets — that changes not just behaviour of staff and politicians, but also contractors and vendors,” Spicer said. 

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