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Durham police investigating fraud allegations at Oshawa city hall

Multiple interviews and review of hundreds of documents to form part of investigation surrounding depot purchase, police say

Oshawa resident Jeff Davis, top left, is one of a group of residents who have been working to uncover further information about a controversial land deal the city made in 2013 for its new works depot, bottom. Recently, the group took evidence to the Durham Regional Police which they believe could point to criminal wrongdoing on behalf of council members (past and present), staff, and Mayor John Henry.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Criminal allegations against current and former members of Oshawa city council, including Mayor John  Henry, and city staff, are now in the hands of the Durham Regional Police Service.

On April 25, residents Jeff Davis and former mayoral candidate Lou DeVuono delivered documents to the DRPS downtown station highlighting what they say is evidence of criminal wrongdoing at city hall, particularly in connection to a much maligned land purchase in 2013 for a new city works depot at 199 Wentworth Street East.

“We’re very confident we have the proof and that an investigation will uncover more of that, there’s only so far we can go as normal citizens. The police have all kinds of more powers,” Davis says.  “They don’t have to go through a four month process of FOIs and three appeals and still not have the answers.”

Since 2013, Davis and DeVuono, along with other residents, have been working through the Freedom of Information (FOI) process at the city, labouring to get further information about the 2013 land purchase. They have gone to the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC), the province’s information watchdog, multiple times on such matters for help in holding the city accountable for not sharing information that should be shared, according to the IPC.

Most recently, the efforts of the group highlighted a discrepancy in what the city has previously claimed surrounding the existence of information as it relates to the depot.

In 2013, after former auditor general Ron Foster delivered a scathing report about the purchase of 199 Wentworth Street East, council hired municipal investigator George Rust-D’Eye to look into Foster’s claims, which included the city overpaying for the property by as much as $1.5 million and threats against the independence of his office.

When the city hired Rust-D’Eye to conduct his investigation, he was given a computer at city hall complete with an F Drive that contained the information and reports that would be relevant to his investigation.

In 2017, the group filed an FOI for the drive itself, looking to see what type of information Rust-D’Eye was originally provided to conduct his review. However, the city claimed the drive had been deleted.

The group appealed this decision to the IPC, who determined that the city hadn’t looked hard enough for the F Drive, or the files which may have been contained on said drive, and told them to go back and look further.

Following the IPC’s order, the city came back with two affidavits, legal forms that are sworn to be true by an oath, that the F Drive could not be found.

The two affidavits came from the city’s IT manager Stephen Patterson and Jason McWilliam, the city’s manager of records and information systems. According to Patterson’s affidavit, “the account, mailbox, and (F:) drive were terminated upon completion of (Rust-D’Eye’s) work for the City. There are no tapes which have a copy of his (F:) drive.”

The same was noted by McWilliam who, according to the IPC, noted that “the records provided to City Clerk’s Services by the Information Technology Services Department have been reviewed, and there is no way to determine which records were stored on [the investigator’s] drive or elsewhere on his City issued computer or drives.”

However, following a subsequent FOI by the group, it was determined that a back-up of the F Drive had been created prior to its deletion.

“I have backed up the electronic content (email and F drive) to external media. You may proceed with whatever steps are necessary to terminate the account,” says McWilliam in an October 2013 email.

With that said, it raises the question as to why the city did not provide a copy of the backup when the group originally requested the files back in 2017, and why sworn affidavits would be drawn up avowing the F Drive could not be shared. Swearing a false affidavit is an indictable offence that can come with a five-year prison term. The issue has been brought to the IPC’s attention, which had previously given the city until April 27 to respond to these questions. The city’s response has yet to be made public.

In terms of their complaint to the DRPS, Davis says that responsibility for the issues at city hall falls on both council and city staff.

“Council is mandated by the Municipal Act to oversee and provide guidance to the city staff, and so if council is not providing that proper guidance then it falls on council’s shoulders, in particular the mayor’s,” says Davis. “The mayor is legislated as the chief executive officer of the City of Oshawa, it rides entirely on his weak, little shoulders right now.”

For Mayor Henry, he says he’s more than willing to sit down with the DRPS to talk about the depot, a purchase he heralded as a great decision and the “best value for taxpayers.”

With that said, he notes that he has not been contacted by the police to date.

“I haven’t been involved, I only read what was written,” he says. “I can tell you that I’m looking forward to whatever participation they’d like from us to just really put this issue to bed.”

On the topic of the affidavits, Mayor Henry chose not to comment.

“I can’t comment on that because the Freedom of Information process is handled through our clerks office. So, there is some challenges, then I think there’s an opportunity to talk to the clerk,” he says, noting that he doesn’t know much more about the subjects other than what has been printed in The Oshawa Express.

“I don’t know anything other than what was printed in the article, so there is a process. The article came out last week and it was a topic of conversation this morning,” he says, noting that the topic was discussed during his weekly meeting with city manager Jag Sharma.

“We had a meeting this morning and an issue was brought up and I have to leave it at that for now,” he says. “It is important to have the facts out there.”

The DRPS have confirmed they have the information, and a case has been opened, but they would not comment further as the investigation is ongoing.

“We are in receipt of the new information and have already started looking into it. After a preliminary review, numerous interviews and an extensive review of hundreds of documents and reports will be required over the coming months,” says Dave Selby, the head of communication for DRPS.

“As you know, several years ago information was brought forward to us and a seasoned fraud investigator was assigned to lead a review of the file. After this thorough investigation was completed, no charges were laid. This investigator has since retired, so this new information will be looked at by another experienced member of our Fraud Unit and his investigative team. I know they have already reached out to city officials to request documentation and the city officials have been fully co-operative.”

As noted, this is not the first time the DRPS have looked into the boondoggle depot deal.

Back in 2013, following complaints from the public, the Durham police looked into the allegations made in Foster’s report. The investigation came back that the allegations against the city and staff members were unfounded.

However, many view the DRPS investigation as incomplete, as emails have shown that Durham investigators were not provided with a full copy of Foster’s report, as the confidential attachments were not provided to them. Despite their efforts, Davis says they have been unable to unearth copies of the confidential attachments through the FOI process, although one of those attachments was made public earlier this year following a FOI request from the late David Conway, a former councillor. To this day, council has yet to make the full report public.

For that reason, the group is requesting that the DRPS hand the investigation up to the Ontario Provincial Police.

“They’re either not willing or not capable of providing an independent investigation,” Davis says of the DRPS.

“We deserve to have them uphold the current laws, we know that Oshawa is probably not the only municipality that has these issues, but right now, we are the poster child for it,” Davis says.  “If we can get this to take root in Oshawa and we can improve things in Oshawa, we have an opportunity to improve politics across the province, in every municipality and at every level, including the provincial and eventually the federal level.”

With that said, DeVuono says the issues at city hall go much further than the 2013 land deal.

“There’s a litany of problems in the city and we picked and focused on one,” he says.  “Hopefully this will convince people to start pushing the city for more accountability and transparency, and ultimately that’s our goal.”

And it would appear the Durham police are the groups last resort. Requests for investigations and assistance sent to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office and several requests to the Ontario Ombudsman have yielded no results.

“We’ve been stung by a number of scandals in the provincial government, e-health, the gas plants, on and on it goes, and yet it seems to be that politicians are not willing…they don’t want the accountability, they don’t want to have someone hold them accountable,” DeVuono says.  “I think it’s time that the voters of Ontario, (and) the voters of Oshawa step up and say, you know what, for far too long you’ve been able to run with carte blanche, and now it’s time that the people take back the government, the way it’s supposed to be run.”

The DRPS have not commented on whether they will request an investigation by the OPP.