Police to investigate trustee expenses

  • November 20, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - Embattled Toronto Catholic school trustees will remain with the board until their term ends in 2010, unless they are convicted of an indictable offence after a police investigation into trustee spending practices, says Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne.

Alcohol, Internet gaming and personalized vehicle licence plates were some of the $30,000 worth of questionable expenses charged to taxpayers by Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees, according to a Nov. 12 audit report.
Wynne told The Register that there are two conditions for dismissal: if a trustee misses three consecutive meetings or is convicted of an indictable offence.

“The police are going to make an assessment of the report and documentation, and will determine whether there needs to be further investigation,” she said.

Who overspent, and by how much

These trustees have confirmed their expenses to The Register:

  • Ann Andrachuk — $136 ineligible expenses.
  • Oliver Carroll — $365 ineligible expenses.
  • John Del Grande — $110 ineligible expenses.
  • Catherine LeBlanc-Miller — $775 ineligible expenses.
  • Maria Rizzo — $796 ineligible expenses, $540 potentially ineligible.

Mary Cicogna has not returned requests for an interview with The Register but her expenses online match Trustee A’s ineligible expenses — $1,291 ineligible expenses, $2,940 potentially ineligible.
These trustees have not returned requests for an interview but their expenses matched with the expenses reported online:

  • Paul Crawford — $2,146 ineligible expenses.
  • Joseph Martino — $1,783 ineligible expenses, $2,113 potentially ineligible.
  • Sal Piccininni — $1,170 ineligible expenses, $13,804 potentially ineligible.

These trustees have not confirmed their expenses but their questionable expenses were reported by other media as:

  • Angela Kennedy — $753 ineligible expenses, $37 potentially ineligible.
  • Barbara Poplawski — $1,012 ineligible expenses.
The report by Ernst & Young LLP, which did not identify trustees by name, said $914,013 of the $943,783 in trustees’ total expenses from Dec. 1, 2005, to May 28, 2008, were deemed eligible. Eligible expenses included Internet connection charges, office furniture, charitable donations and advertising.

The questionable expenses, labelled as “ineligible” and “potentially ineligible,” were those which were prohibited by school board policy, inconsistent with a trustee’s duties or did not have supporting documentation to verify the expense.

Wynne said all questionable expenses will be recouped through the trustees’ honoraria.

Board chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller said trustees and the board are looking forward to moving on and have already taken steps to do so, even before the audit’s release. She said trustees voted last year to cancel their corporate credit cards, are now posting their expenses on the board’s web site and there are new policies in place such as sending trustee expenses for approval to the minister via an annual review.

LeBlanc-Miller added that the audit has found 97 per cent of trustee expenses to be eligible which “should provide a degree of assurance.”

Les Nemes, the board’s director of education, said in a Nov. 13 statement that the board understands “the upset and anger” over the scandal which has plagued the board since media reports emerged about a year ago about trustees’ expenses, leading to a scathing report by government-appointed supervisor Norbert Hartmann. Much of the heat fell on former trustee Christine Nunziata, who it was found billed the board for her honeymoon trip, among other expenses. Nunziata was removed from the board in February for missing three consecutive meetings.

Wynne said Nunziata had already paid back some of those expenses.

According to the report, $10,337 of ineligible expenses has been repaid by trustees, though one trustee, referred to in the report as Trustee A, has refused to repay $918.

“The trustee disagrees with our assessment of the expenses and has declined to repay these amounts,” the report said.

Trustee A, whose expenses match Mary Cicogna’s online expenses, was found to have $918 in “ineligible expenses” for a gold ring, sun lamp and personalized licence plates. But Trustee A has repaid $373 of ineligible expenses for duplicate claims, Internet gaming charges, luggage and a car wash.

The report also said it was unable to assess the eligibility of $2,940 of expenses claimed by Trustee A which included “an expense where the supporting documentation is ineligible, a meal receipt with a tip representing a gratuity amount higher than 40 per cent and unexplained meal and food charges.” It added that the trustee’s “potentially ineligible expenses also include purchase card transactions for which receipts or explanations could not be provided.”

Cicogna did not return requests for an interview before The Register’s press time but she has reportedly said she would return the items in question.

Murielle Boudreau, chair of the Greater Toronto Catholic Parents Network, said her group doesn’t agree with leaving out some expenses like trustee Oliver Carroll’s tuition fee to obtain a masters of education degree, nor do they agree with the expenses that were deemed eligible such as a trustee charging the board for renting out their home as office space.

“It seems that anything you had a receipt for is fine,” she said.

Another criticism of the report, Boudreau said, was that it was “not transparent.”

“There are no names attached. It’s not clear to parents who exactly did what,” she added.

But Wynne said the audit wasn’t about “shaming individuals.” Instead, it’s about “quantifying the problem and finding out what needed to be done next.”

Even so, Boudreau said she’s received calls from some parents who are so upset about the scandal that they’re thinking of pulling their tax support for the Catholic school system if the trustees aren’t removed.

“This board belongs to the parents and the children. It does not belong to these trustees,” she said.

A copy of the report entitled “Trustee Expense Reconciliation” can be found on the board’s web site at www.tcdsb.org.

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