BY JOHN CHICK
Special to the VOICE
After an investigation that lasted well over a year, the Ontario Ombudsman concluded last Friday that the hiring of former Niagara Region CAO Carmen D’Angelo was rigged from the start.
To drive home his point, Ombudsman Paul Dubé titled his report, “Inside Job.”
D’Angelo was hired by the Region in 2016, and the following year had his contract secretly extended in a unilateral move by former Regional Chair Alan Caslin. D’Angelo left Niagara following Caslin’s electoral defeat last year, and sued the Region for more than $1 million. The Ombudsman’s office opened its investigation in August 2018 after receiving almost 200 complaints about D’Angelo’s hiring process.
Ombudsman investigators conducted 46 interviews and reviewed thousands of digital documents. The Ombudsman also engaged an auditing firm with expertise in computer forensics to review the digital evidence and address allegations that the leaked documents might have been tampered with or “planted.” No evidence was found to support such allegations.
Digital files retrieved from the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), where D’Angelo worked before he was hired by Niagara Region in the fall of 2016, showed that he envisioned the replacement of the Regional’s previous CAO as far back as December 2015, when he authored a spreadsheet called “CAO Critical Path.” The spreadsheet accurately predicted the day that Regional Council tried to fire the then-CAO a month later, and set out a timeline for the recruitment of the new CAO.
Prior to and throughout the recruitment process, Angelo downloaded eight documents containing confidential information or help from Regional insiders to his NPCA computer.
“Mr. D’Angelo was provided with confidential documents before and throughout the hiring process,” Dubé wrote in his report. “These included a report on the makeup of the recruitment committee, the names and biographies of potential candidates, and questions and suggested answers for his interviews. Several of the documents originated in the office of the then-Regional Chair, whose staff also helped Mr. D’Angelo with his application and played a central role in the hiring process, despite not being part of the official recruitment committee.”
The CAO salary at the time was approximately $250,000 annually.
“Mr. D’Angelo was provided with substantive content to be used in his application materials by insiders who had access to information not available to the general public or to other candidates,” Dubé said. “The lack of fairness and transparency in the hiring process created controversy and distrust within the Region and served to undermine public confidence in local government.”
“The Ombudsman’s report brings shame to all Regional politicians of that time,” said Mayor Junkin, also currently one of Pelham’s two Regional councillors. “It brings home the need for complete transparency, at all levels of government, at all times.”
Pelham’s other Regional councillor, Diana Huson, echoed these sentiments.
“Quite frankly, the report is damning,” said Huson. “It succinctly concludes what many had suspected about our Regional government over the last term—there was a concerted effort to manipulate the hiring process of our most senior public official by a select few. It’s quite shocking to see the extent at which this was mapped out and how it unfolded. This council is now tasked with putting the necessary mechanisms in place to protect the integrity of our public institution. We will be discussing the issue further on Thursday to assess what further steps can be taken, and how we can ensure this can’t happen again.”
Former Regional Chair Alan Caslin, defeated in his bid for re-election in October 2018, told the Voice that throughout his tenure his focus was on the broader picture.
“As Regional Chair, I always acted with the best of intentions for the betterment of Niagara,” said Caslin. “I was proud to lead a council that put in place a robust internal controls and audit division to enhance accountability and begin to address ongoing practices like contract-splitting that violate the Region’s procurement policies. I am glad that Niagara’s Municipal Ombudsman and now the Ontario Ombudsman have found that no corporate policies were broken through the recruitment process. I thank the Ombudsman for his opinions on the situation and his recommendations to improve procedures at the Region.”
Caslin’s reference to the Municipal Ombudsman relates to an initial investigation undertaken by Regional Council at the time, whose conclusions were heralded by some on council as exonerating D’Angelo. Dubé criticizes this first investigation as effectively incompetent, due in equal parts to Regional Council not clearly setting terms of reference, as well as the Municipal Ombudsman’s relatively limited digging into available evidence and witnesses.
Dubé made 16 recommendations to the Region to avert similar irregularities in the future. Regional Council has unanimously accepted all of them. The Region has also agreed to report publicly and to the Ombudsman’s Office every six months on its progress in implementing them.
“I am hopeful that by implementing my recommendations, the Regional municipality will regain some of the public trust that was lost during this CAO hiring process, and that in future its practices and policies will result in greater accountability, transparency, integrity and fairness in local governance,” Dubé writes in the report.
Regional Chair Jim Bradley has called a special council meeting for this Thursday, Dec. 5, starting at 3 PM., to discuss the contents of the Ombudsman’s report publicly.
A link to the entire document may be found here.
(One of Pelham’s two former Regional councillors, Brian Baty, offers his thoughts on page 4 of this week’s print edition. The other, David Augustyn, did not respond to a request for comment. The paper was unable to obtain contact details for Carmen D’Angelo.)