Taxpayers ‘duped’ out of $630K for BramptonU, councillors say; audit ordered after firms linked to Patrick Brown and Rowena Santos received contracts

·19 min read

“We’re talking about manipulation, deliberately misleading Council. That is at the crux of this. Essentially, and I hate to use this term, Brampton taxpayers got ‘hoaxed’, and we council got duped. Some of us didn’t get duped, because they were part of it and that is to me, at the heart of this.”

Those were the words of Councillor Martin Medeiros who chaired Brampton’s council meeting Wednesday.

After the blistering meeting, interim CAO Paul Morrison has been ordered to engage an audit firm, a forensic IT firm and a procurement expert, selected by councillors, to immediately conduct an investigation into the abandoned BramptonU file.

The idea for an independent BramptonU, pushed by Mayor Brown, Councillor Rowena Santos and Councillor Harkirat Singh for more than 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 a consultant with ties to Santos, have swirled around the doomed plan, which other councillors have said has been abandoned.

Councillor Medeiros oversaw the meeting discussion around the contents of a recent staff report into the mishandling of the failed Brampton University project which cost taxpayers $629,000.

The candid public session featured councillors voice anger and frustration, much of it directed at their colleague, Santos, in the absence of Mayor Brown who once again was out of the province while the business of the City was conducted, checking in occasionally online.

Some documents in the growing BramptonU investigation file were withheld in closed session. What was publicly released was the staff report authored by Mustafa Yaqubi, Acting Senior Manager of Public Affairs, and approved by Morrison. It shows much of what was paid for by the City cannot be found by staff, after consultants with ties to Brown and Councillor Santos were hired to launch the project.

Five of the 12 deliverables were missing and one was handed in a year and five months late.

Brown was absent from most of the heated discussions and missed many key votes, while travelling out of the province campaigning for the federal Conservative leadership (he has not taken a leave of absence despite spending most of his time outside Brampton since he announced his candidacy two months ago).

At the meeting on May 18, Medeiros told the rest of Council and senior staff that in his mind, procurement rules were broken when one firm with links to Brown and another closely tied to Santos, were given the two contracts in 2019 to do the work. The two members of council have been the public face of BramptonU and claim it was a legitimate project, despite mounting skepticism from councillors who say the mismanaged plan was doomed from the start.

The early council meeting discussions revolved around how much should be paid for an independent investigation into the BramptonU file. The two firms with ties to Brown and Santos will be at the centre of the probe.

Brown and Rob Godfrey, an employee of Stakeholder Research Associates (SRA) when the firm was given what was supposed to be a $170,000 contract, and the son of Postmedia Chair Paul Godfrey, are close friends. The two worked together according to Brown’s own book which chronicles his fall from the PC Party in 2018, when Rob Godfrey, one of his most trusted confidantes, was part of his inner circle.

Santos is a former student and political ally of David Wheeler, co-founder of the Academy for Sustainable Innovation (ASI), which was given a contract for about $100,000 to do work on BramptonU. Wheeler taught Santos as a post-secondary business instructor. Santos, who has called him a mentor, helped Wheeler when he sought political office in Nova Scotia in 2017, traveling to Halifax to assist with his campaign.

Medeiros questioned how the two consultants were even hired, pointing out that the procurement should have gone through multiple layers of staff. The staff report shows that at least one of the two firms did not pass the technical evaluation for the bidding process, which should have resulted in an automatic disqualification from the procurement competition.

ASI, the firm Wheeler was associated with when he did the work (he no longer is affiliated with it) focused on helping companies transition to green technologies and processes, and did not list any experience helping launch post-secondary institutions.

SRA did not list any work around launching a university either, and its website did not indicate any experience with partners in the post-secondary education space.

The SRA website no longer lists Godfrey as an associate and his Linkedin profile has no mention of the firm he used to work for when it was given the BramptonU contract.

After learning Godfrey’s firm was paid three times more than what council had approved and what the contract was for, Medeiros questioned how the cheques could have been signed with amounts and increases that had never been authorized by council.

The amount eventually paid out for the BramptonU work was more than twice what council approved in September of 2019.

He said he spoke to an organization that was consulted as part of one piece of the work that SRA was required to do under the contract, described as “community stakeholder engagement sessions”. Representatives of the group, he said, were “horrified” to learn the work cost taxpayers $25,000.

“What gives me solace is the electorate,” Medeiros told council. “They’re the ones who bring wisdom to decision making at City Hall. Because if we’re not ready to make the decisions and do what’s right, they surely will get people to do what’s right. We have the financial trail, we have the coverup, and sometimes the coverup is worse than what was actually committed.”

After being told by staff that those who had access to the invoices were the former CAO David Barrick, who was fired in February, and other staff that worked for the CAO, Councillor Pat Fortini said that if City Hall was his company, staff members involved alongside the CAO would be let go.

“They’re still kind of covering up after the boss is gone, that’s where I’m holding the staff accountable on it because if from day one when we did the changes, ‘Hey I was told to do this if I want to keep my job.’ I appreciate that, the honesty. Everyone’s got families to feed–but when you come here and you’re still covering up over and over and you can’t find things, everyone is guilty, it's not just the boss but also staff.”

For Fortini, the expense of a full investigation into what happened is not a consideration.

“It’s about finding the truth. If you went to a place, if I went to a Walmart or something and I took something, and I said, ‘It’s only worth $10, it’s not worth the headache.’ They would arrest me,” Fortini said. “I would get charged. People have to find out what happened to the money. A Councillor was tied to all this, there’s emails.”

The emails Fortini was referring to were from Councillor Santos in the spring of 2019.

The emails show Santos had already engaged Wheeler and organized meetings in Brampton between him, the CAO at the time and members of Brown’s mayoral office. This was more than half a year before the City even launched the bidding process to award the two contracts eventually given to Wheeler and Godfrey’s firm at the time.

The recent staff report into the handling of the BramptonU file revealed Wheeler charged expenses for travel from the UK and accommodations months before he was hired. Councillors have said they were never told and they had no idea Santos had brought in her mentor to do the work before the procurement process even started.

The Pointer previously reported that a “draft” report submitted by Wheeler in the summer of 2019, five months before he was hired, was used almost verbatim for the work that was later submitted under the contract a year later.

Councillor Jeff Bowman told The Pointer he never saw Wheeler’s draft report submitted prior to any contract and was not told about it.

When Wheeler was introduced to council on November 25, 2019 as a new BramptonU consultant, the slide shown to members listed him as “Dr David Wheeler Academy for Sustainable Innovation” (ASI).

Staff reveal in their recent review that the final work for one of the deliverables that cost $25,400 was called a white paper, but only the “draft” report provided by Wheeler July 10, 2019, months before the bidding competition to do the work, could be found. It includes copied images from the internet, other material apparently taken from original sources and vague information about academic institutions.

A 20-slide presentation to council by Wheeler in late November of 2019 was a combination of material copied from other sources, background on Wheeler and bullet points such as, “Youth mentorship and engagement” as one of the descriptions of the work ASI did, and, “Deliver current undergraduate programming into Brampton using existing resources with the enthusiastic encouragement of the City” under the heading, “Academic Outreach” to be done for BramptonU.

The methodology section of the draft development strategy lays out work that took place in the spring of 2019, before the council-approved contracts had been handed out. It is unclear if ASI (and Wheeler) were under another contract with the City of Brampton at the time; council did not approve requests for proposals (bids) for the project work until September, 2019.

Councillors have told The Pointer they did not know Wheeler was engaged in the spring of 2019 and they said there was no council approval for him to do any work before the bidding process concluded.

Wheeler’s “Timeline” stated a “Blueprint” for the BramptonU strategy would be provided by April of 2020 and “Implementation” would commence in May 2020.

There has been little public information about the work Wheeler did after the workshop presentation in November of 2019.

Wheeler no longer has any association with ASI, after the firm’s name was used in all his efforts. ASI has stated it was not retained for the “draft” report submitted by Wheeler in July of 2019, but its logo appears on the front of the document.

Included in Wheeler’s payment was expenses showing $952.64 in airfare dated October 9, 2019 and $3276.24 in Airbnb expenses for the period of April 11, 2019 to August 12, 2019. His contract did not start until November 4, 2019.

When Wheeler was previously reached for comment he confirmed the airfare was accurate but said ASI submitted the wrong Airbnb dates due to a “clerical error.”

In total, $101,380.66 from the City of Brampton was given to Wheeler.

The total amount paid to the two firms, Stakeholder Research Associates (SRA) and ASI, is more than double the limit council approved in September of 2019, almost half of the deliverables can not be found and the work that was submitted appears to fall far short of what was expected.

In a confusing response to the staff review, under a section regarding the $25,400 payment for the comprehensive report on the development and strategy to establish BramptonU that was supposed to be produced in 2019, Wheeler’s former firm, ASI, wrote the City the following:

“ASI was not retained for this project nor received revenue for this report. SRA was the sole vendor and retained De. (sic) Wheeler in his capacity as an independent consultant. As co-founder of ASI, Dr. Wheeler often represented ASI in related activities.”

On Wednesday, Councillor Gurpreet Dhillon explicitly referred to the emails from Santos in the spring of 2019 and called the whole situation “disturbing.”

“If you look on social media, Santos was tending to Mr. Wheeler’s campaigns, supporting him politically, had stated that Mr. Wheeler was her mentor,” Dhillon said. “As it went on we had no council resolution stating that we could commence these types of discussions, it seems odd that one of the groups (ASI) backed away said they had no relationship with this person. The amount of money that was actually paid out without any deliverables. We are where we are now and I think we really need to dig into this and find out what’s going on.”

Paul Vicente, a close council ally of Santos, tried to defend her, saying that if “improvements to the process” can be found, it should be done but even he admitted “that with BramptonU it goes without saying that there has been some failures.” He mentioned some successes as well, but it’s unclear what he meant, as councillors have said the BramptonU project is effectively dead.

There are other efforts to expand post-secondary education in the city, but they have nothing to do with the claims of Brown, Santos, Wheeler and Councillor Harkirat Singh who for two years told Brampton residents a standalone university, not affiliated with other universities, was practically a done deal.

Councillor Bowman spent his time Wednesday questioning Morrison and senior staff from finance, after it was revealed that the additional costs beyond the contract amounts were not brought to council for approval.

Eventually his questions led to the request for Gurdeep Kaur to come before council, to explain the processes for the original tenders and how additional funds were paid out without the knowledge of council. Kaur was the “point person” for a time on the project, regularly communicating with Wheeler alongside former CAO David Barrick.

Kaur said that when she was brought onto the file, the tendering process had already occurred.

“I signed a lot of invoices because I had to, I was told to,” Kaur told council.

“In December, 2019 it was my first day I was given this file by the previous CAO, David Barrick, and it was part of a resolution that was passed by council from November, and the RFP process from what I know had already occurred—so Dr. Wheeler and his group of consultants were already hired by us. We were in contact with them and started the processes. All the invoices, all the cheques—the first day I came on I signed a cheque for $31,000, it was directed by the CAO to sign this.”

Kaur said she asked for background on the file, but was refused.

“They said, ‘We’re working on a university for Brampton, that’s what it was for.’ ”

In regards to communicating with Queen’s Park, part of the expected procedure to ensure the plan conformed to ministry guidelines for the establishment of post-secondary institutions, she testified that she never was directed to send any documents to the Province, just to council.

“Dr. Wheeler said that because of COVID the Province will not entertain our request. We had several follow-up meetings, you probably recall in June, 2020 there was an update enclosed. There was a letter from David Piccini (parliamentary assistant to the minister of training, colleges and universities at the time) from the Province, [Brampton PC MPP Prabmeet Sarkaria] was also on a conversation via phone and there was no direct contact except for some sort of correspondence from the mayor. I have never spoken to anyone from the Province.”

Eventually, Kaur said the relationship with Wheeler broke down in 2020, after he made a joke about her background as a lawyer where, “with a lawyer in the room work can never get done because they pinpoint everything.” After this, she said all communications from Wheeler were dealt with by Barrick.

Kaur said that in her understanding, the $25,400 non-peer reviewed “white paper” was never sent to the Province. She was asked if Wheeler was held accountable for delivering expected work that was paid for.

“There was one particular Councillor that was very involved in this. Councillor Santos would often call, send messages and visit the office, and I was not able to speak directly or have a very open relationship with the consultant because everything was very controlled, so I can’t answer that (if) I asked Dr. Wheeler for deliverables. I was not allowed to. I was not told to. There were different entities involved in all of this work.”

She said she was not involved in any work to get the Province, which has ultimate authority over post-secondary expansion, engaged with the BramptonU project, but she was given two names: one was Rob Godfrey.

Kaur said she was asked to put together a proposal for university legislation to send to the Province, but this was never done due to COVID.

Premier Doug Ford would never end up receiving an official proposal about BramptonU and Kaur said she was never in contact with the provincial government in relation to the project at any point.

“Sometimes staff is in such a position where they don’t question authority and the level of involvement with different political staff, bureaucratic staff–I did not check authority, nor was I told to. In fact if there was a question in my mind when I raised them it was a very different response, something I wasn’t expecting.”

Santos spoke up when Kaur was answering questions from councillors, defending her relationship with Wheeler, stating she spoke with the Integrity Commissioner at the time about her connection to Wheeler.

An investigation request by council to probe what Santos did on the BramptonU file and her dealings with Wheeler was recently sent to the current Integrity Commissioner.

“The reality is, we as a council, advocated for more post-secondary in Brampton,” Santos said Wednesday. “I understand some of my colleagues are questioning the cost of that and where value is had, what have you, but I think the final result of Brampton University and the momentum that we had on this file resulted in things like the medical school…”.

Santos was cut off by laughter and a councillor stating “come on”, referring to the medical school she, Brown and Singh have claimed is coming to Brampton despite no funding, no approval from the Province, no teaching hospital and no academic institution currently in the city to house such a huge program.

Through questioning from Councillor Bowman to Kaur, it was revealed that nobody from the City’s government relations team was involved in writing questions for the public consultations to gauge local interest in the BramptonU idea, which deviated from the Province’s requirement that new universities can only be launched in direct partnership with an existing university.

Bowman read out some of the statements put together by the consultants hired to engage residents: “University degrees available in Brampton should be at rates lower than other universities”; “Universities should charge less tuition.”; “Students should be able to stay and work locally.”

“These are some of the questions that we paid $15,000 for?” Bowman said. “The result was a unanimous yes, people want this, and this is what led us to an understanding that we need Brampton University. I can go out on the street, I think, and get the same confirmation from people.”

Councillor Dhillon questioned Kaur on the process that was pursued, which did not conform with the Province’s use of a “Proposal Call” for a new university which outlines specific requirements for successful applications such as partnering with an existing institution. “Did anyone ever make it clear that we’re not using the normal protocol or the process and we should do it in a particular order?”

Kaur replied.

“There was an incident that took place in late January 2020. Councillor Santos called and said I was not enthusiastic about some sort of delivery, and came in to the… office and there’s witnesses to this and she shouted at me, and I asked, ‘Why are you being like that’ and she went to the then CAO at the time, Mr. Barrick, and met with him. I’m not familiar with exactly what took place after that.”

When asked if there was any type of pressure in relation to the unusual process Wheeler was pursuing, Kaur referenced the incident and said other co-workers who were there could confirm how Santos behaved.

Her account led to a successful council resolution for Santos to be investigated by the Integrity Commissioner for alleged staff harassment after the forensic audit motion was passed. A full article about Kaur’s allegations against Santos will be published.

The motion for a full investigation into the entire BramptonU file involves the creation of a steering committee comprised of councillors Bowman, Fortini and Dhillon who will oversee the hiring of firms to do forensic financial work, IT investigations and a probe into the entire procurement process.

The CAO will only report back to Council on the scope and costs associated with the comprehensive forensic investigation established by the steering committee.

Santos tried to get her allies, Councillor Michael Palleschi and Vicente on the steering committee, but only those three and Singh, another ally, supported her failed attempt.

Brown was absent for most of the votes.

The steering committee will now select firms to begin the investigation so taxpayers can find out how $630,000 was spent on a questionable project now dead in the water.

Email: jessica.durling@thepointer.com

Twitter: @JessicaRDurling

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