Sunday, October 14, 2018

Niagara Regional Housing: another regional authority under question

Public housing struggles to meet the needs of the community in every part of Canada. In the Niagara Region the Niagara Regional Housing Authority, NRH, oversees this task. The NRH is an arm of the Regional Municipality of Niagara even though it operates as an authority with its own board of directors. Funding for the NRH is primarily provided by the Niagara Region at approximately 60%, and both provincial and federal governments provide some 17% with a balance coming from its own operations through rents. At the end of the day 80% of the NRH operating budget is public money; taxpayers' dollars.

The NRH mission statement as read on its website claims “to expand opportunities that make affordable housing an integral part of building healthy and sustainable communities in Niagara.” Its strategic plan for 2013-2016 states that the “NRH demonstrates our commitment to this vision and to Regional Council's focus on Niagara as a healthy community, that supports a safe, healthy, diverse culturally rich community where people of all ages and incomes enjoy a high quality of life.”

Seniors' residences comprise approximately 45% of the public housing the NRH oversees, some they own and operate but the majority are semi-private and are funded by the NRH. Staff at the NRH whether management or not are public employees paid by the public purse. So an authority such as the NRH funded by the taxpayers' dollars would be expected to be answerable to public scrutiny, and to be diligent in overseeing its responsibility in shepherding public money. Well, in theory, yes, in practice it has left serious and alarming questions needing answers.

The Paderewski Society Home in St. Catharines is one such semi-private seniors home. It's life began as a vision of one man, Leopold Skorski, and is a registered non-profit society with a set of by-laws and an elected volunteer board of directors. Although it is a registered non-profit organisation its operational funding is entirely provided by Niagara Regional Housing, which is public money. Much as been written on this website relating to the Paderewski, with the most recent article detailing the trial completed late 2017.

As members of a society, we are aware that if we unlawfully take something that does not belong to us we will face an investigation and consequences. In the case of the Paderewski, a Superior Court justice said in his decision that the Purchasing and Tendering Policy had been breached. That same justice said the by-laws of the Society had been breached and the policies of the NRH. He called this very suspicious. A Forensic Auditor, Robert Forsyth, stated under oath fraud had been committed. Should this not be enough for a full police investigation and the guilty face consequences? Public money had been stolen and the NRH fully aware of this fact and nothing has happened.

After the trial, emails were sent to Niagara Regional Chair Alan Caslin and the current Chair of the NRH, Henry D'Angela advising them of the Superior Court's Justice decision and the testimony of Auditor Robert Forsyth. Remember the NRH is predominately funded by Niagara Region's tax dollars. Chair Alan Caslin has never responded, Chair of NRH Henry D'Angela on July 10th 2018 confirmed by email that he had forwarded the concerns regarding fraud to staff. His email had two names which he had c.c'd: Donna Woiceshyn, CEO and Shelly Upton. On July 12th 2018, Shelly Upton, Manager Housing Programs responded stating: “I have had an opportunity to review the Superior Court decision attached to your email as well as our files and records involving the Paderewski Society Home.” She continued that the NRH “has investigated allegations of improper spending at Paderewski on several occasions since 2009. Following each investigation NRH wrote to the Board of Directors of Paderewski confirming that no financial irregularities had been found.” Shelly Upton finished by saying that NRH “considers the complaint regarding the purchasing and tendering processes related to the fencing installed in 2011 closed.” Chair D'Angela referred to Shelly Upton July 10th at 1:13 pm., Shelly Upton closed the files July 12 at 7:20 pm. This had to have been a truly exhaustive review of records and files, although Upton did not surprise anyone.

Regional Chair Caslin's lack of interest in the fraud of public money is not so surprising with all he has had hang over him. First, there was the information of Alan Caslin's personal association with Justice Edwards who had heard a Motion filed against the Niagara Region, and a ruling in favour of the Region. Then there was the feeding frenzy by regional councillors in grabbing personal property belonging to a journalist and a private citizen. In this case, the Ombudsman slammed the Region after its investigation. Finally, there is the whole question of the hiring of Region's CEO Carmen D'Angelo. Yet Caslin and the NRH not caring about fraud is hard to accept, unless one reviews evidence put forward during the trial.

Entered into public record were minutes of the Paderewski Society Home board meeting on November 13th 2013. Present at the meeting was Lorraine Small, a manager with the NRH, and a manager who had supposedly looked into allegations of financial irregularities. Ms. Small advised the Board in November of 2013 to take legal action against Leopold Skorski to shut him up and stop him from asking any more questions. Lorraine Small is a public employee, paid with public money yet how did she have the legal right to provide such advice? Legal action was taken by the Board of the Paderewski against Leopold Skorski, Alexander Davidoff and Alexandra Davidoff in February of 2014.

Further testimony was provided by Stella Fensom, building manager at the Paderewski during the trial in 2017 who is the center of the questions of fraud, that Laura Beckwith another manager at the NRH at the time, handed over a copy of a letter written to the RHRA by defendant Alexander Davidoff. The Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority is a provincial body established to assist seniors in many facets of their lives. This provincial authority sent a copy of the letter they received to the NRH so that they look into the issues raised. Under no circumstances was anyone at the NRH permitted by law to provide a copy of the letter to a private non-government body who they advised to take legal action to silence questions being asked. Chair of the NRH at the time, Shirley Cordiner admitted to sharing the letter and then said she ordered all files to be deleted. Does that smell a little of the provincial Liberals and McGuinty? Paderewski lawyer at the time, Rachel Slingerland of Martens Lingard, refers to the illegally obtained letter in her Notice of Action dated February 27th 2014.

Shirley Cordiner, former NRH Chair went further writing a letter dated December 18th 2013 in which she stated that all the allegations made, in particular relating to two contracts: the Gale Force Fencing and Glen Paul, who had been investigated and no irregularities found. Both the judge at trial in 2017 and the Forensic Auditor Robert Forsyth found massive irregularities. Robert Forsyth called it fraud and Justice Henderson called it very suspicious and a breach of the Purchasing & Tendering Policy.

The timeline in all of these actions by the NRH staff is of crucial legal importance and raises the possibility of questions of complicity in the fraud. Can there be another explanation and can there be an explanation of why no investigation has been conducted of the fraud? Niagara regional staff had become involved directly in a legal action by a third party who is financed by public money. This same third party was improperly investigated by the NRH staff for fraud.

Questions relating to the absolute lack of interest in fraud of public money do not stop with the NRH or the regional government of Niagara. Malte von Anrep, Q.C, with Lancaster, Brooks and Welch LLP, and the lawyer for the Paderewski founder, Leo Skorski, wrote Mayor Walter Sendzik of St. Catharines on May 11th 2018. Mayor Sendzik did not bother to reply.

Chris Bittle is the federal representative for the Trudeau Liberals in St. Catharines, and a former lawyer with Lancaster, Brooks and Welch. An email was sent July 3rd 2018, stating out the details of the fraud and offering to make available all the legal documents. Niagara Regional Housing is in part funded by the federal government, MP Chris Bittle pops his face into photo-ops, and more importantly, Chris Bittle does not shy from public comment about local issues. Several months ago when a public storm broke in relation to a regional councillor from Niagara, MP Bittle played out his attack against the councillor publicly. That issue had nothing to do with a federal politician. Now he is silent, why?

The provincial elections swept the Liberals out of Queens' Park and brought forward two local former St. Catharines councillors into the glamour of provincial politics. Both Jeff Burch and Jenny Stevens were Merritton Ward Councillors and both have been elected as NDP representatives, and both have been featured in articles in Mayorgate.

Jeff Burch as a councillor found himself under investigation by Integrity Commissioner Suzanne Craig for lying to City Council. Craig was not able to complete her investigation but in her final report she clearly stated that she had not cleared Jeff Burch of these very serious allegations. Today Burch struts as the NDP Municipal Affairs Critic and on August 7th 2018 an email was sent to him relating to the fraud with a link to Justice Henderson's decision. The NDP, the New Democratic Party, which attacks the sitting Conservative government of Doug Ford has shown no care at all for fraud of the public purse. Burch has not responded to the email.
Fellow NDP representative Jenny Stevens, like Burch, was a former St. Catharines councillor, and in the 2010 municipal elections claimed to go out at night to fix plumbing for constituents. Jenny Stevens is also rather famous for her telephone answering machine message where she confirmed that the former Mayor of St. Catharines, Brian McMullan had fixed a fine for a resident. Stevens is Veterans Legions, and Military Affairs Critic and like compadre Burch she manages to pop out of her seat now and again to poke at the Ford government. She also received an email on August 7th 2018, and like Burch, Stevens ignored everything. The NDP is the official opposition in Ontario and it has much to say about the government, yet the NDP has shown that public money is not an issue of concern.

As a last resort, a letter was sent to Premier Doug Ford with the Justice Henderson Ruling and Robert Forsyth Testimony. Little expectation remained as previously both the NDP's Jeff Burch and Jenny Stevens, and the Federal Liberals through Chris Bittle ignored this very serious situation. A letter arrived dated September 17th 2018 signed by MPP Steve Clark, the Minister for Municipal Affairs. Minister Clark begins his letter with, “Premier Doug Ford has forwarded to me your letter regarding your concerns with the Niagara Regional Housing Authority.” Premier Ford had not ignored the material sent to him and through his minister, Steve Clark provided guidance and confirmation for the next steps to be taken.

It is difficult to understand how fraud by a non-profit seniors' housing provider be ignored, particularly when identified by a Superior Court Justice and a Forensic Auditor. The local newspapers The Standard, Niagara this Week and its editors have decided to censor all information relating to this, local regional government and its housing authority have closed their files, provincial opposition and the federal representative simply ignore everything; yet the Charter of Rights guarantees equality of law and this cannot be permitted to simply fade. Answers are demanded to serious questions and they need to be sought out.

No comments:

Post a Comment