BY VOICE STAFF
The Ontario Provincial Police announced last week that it has concluded its investigation into the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. The OPP was asked by the Niagara Regional Police Service to look into the NPCA in November 2016, following the publication of activist Ed Smith’s “A Call for Accountability at the NPCA.” In his document, Smith alleged that contracts had been improperly swapped at the Authority, and that the organization was riddled with conflicts of interest.
In response, the NPCA and its former CAO Carmen D’Angelo sued Smith for defamation. Though Justice James Ramsay ruled late last year that key allegations made by Smith were untrue, he also threw out the suits, saying that Smith had not demonstrated malice and that a governmental organization should not be suing its critics.
A press release last week from the NRP said that the OPP’s Anti-Rackets Branch, “led by a Major Case Manager of the Criminal Investigation Branch, conducted an investigation and have concluded there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.”
NRP Chief Bryan MacCulloch said that he would like to “personally thank the investigative teams involved for their thorough investigation and attention to bringing this matter to a conclusion.”
Following the announcement, Smith said that he was confident that the OPP completed a thorough investigation, though said that he remains critical of the NPCA.
“While the fact that no criminal wrongdoing was discovered is encouraging, it is important to note that there are still many unanswered questions about the management of the NPCA and their use of our tax dollars,” said Smith.
Smith criticized the Authority’s depiction of the OPP’s announcement.
“Once again the NPCA leadership has used language in a fashion that tends to obfuscate the truth,” he said. “The OPP found ‘no criminal wrongdoing’, that is not the same as finding ‘no wrongdoing’ as the NPCA headline states. The two are very different issues.”
Smith disputed the NPCA’s assertion that the judge had found all of his criticisms to be without merit.
“The Justice actually found that many—most—of the issues in my report were actually not challenged by the NPCA,” said Smith, whose report took aim at the NPCA’s environmental policy and governance practises.
“There were never any allegations of corruption,” he said.
NPCA Chair Sandy Annunziata shot back at Smith, taking issue with his suggestion that the core of his complaints were about policy and governance.
“Mr. Smith continues his habitual pattern of deliberately misleading the public,” said Annunziata.
“The OPP Anti-Rackets Branch does not launch investigations simply because a resident ‘has questions on governance.’ It does so when allegations of corruption and criminality are made and pushed its way. Mr Smith’s back-pedalling on his motives is astonishing considering the amount of public resources wasted in investigating his baseless claims.”
In a 2016 email to Regional Councillor Brian Heit, Smith wrote that he had submitted his report to the Peel Police Fraud Squad, and that an officer from that department had recommended that he also go to the NRP. At the time, Niagara Region was considering hiring Carmen D’Angelo, who had previously led the NPCA, as its new CAO.
“What if you were to find out that he is the subject of a police investigation,” wrote Smith to Heit. “Is that enough for you guys to make a reasonable case to at least defer this?”
In its failed suit, the NPCA alleged that Smith’s motive was to “harm Mr. D’Angelo’s prospects of being hired” as the Region’s CAO.
Last week, Smith said that in his email to Heit he was repeating what he had been told as he understood it.
“I did not send it to the public, and certainly never expected it to be made public. I have not made allegations of fraud and corruption against the NPCA, in fact I have tried to be careful not to.”
Annunziata said that the NPCA only disputed in court the allegations that it considered to be libellous, and countered Smith’s other concerns with policy announcements.
In addition to announcing a one million trees initiative, and launching the I (Heart) NPCA campaign, the authority has attributed confusion over its role to the ongoing renegotiation of responsibilities with the Niagara Region.
Regional Councillor and NPCA board member Tony Quirk confirmed that the Auditor General continues to review the Authority, and said that he was pleased that “both Judge Ramsay and the OPP have confirmed there is no corruption or criminal activity at the NPCA.”
Quirk was confident that that the Auditor General’s report will vindicate the NPCA, saying that he expects it to further confirm “that the NPCA has evolved from an agency in crisis in 2010 to a competent organization today.”
Pelham Regional Councillor and NPCA board member Brian Baty said that the announcement provided “an incredible amount of relief from the relentless attacks on the NPCA during months of allegations, and uninformed councillors and councils making motions of censure without any recourse for NPCA Board members or staff to refute these allegations, and external calls to appoint an auditor and even a provincial supervisor.”
He added, “The recent update to the provincial Conservation Authorities Act confirms best practices that are already in place at NPCA. The OPP report confirms that we have acted within the law in all regards, and the anticipated Auditor General Audit has been embraced by all 15 NPCA Board members and staff as we anticipate a comprehensive and positive outcome by June of this year on all aspects of our operations over the last several years through a value-for-money audit.”
In addition to the OPP’s announcement, the NPCA last week revealed the cost of its failed lawsuit against Smith. Despite previous indications that the information would not be forthcoming, the NPCA’s board decided to reveal the cost, which it said totalled $146,757. The NPCA was ordered by Ramsay to pay Smith $131,076 for his legal costs, bringing the entire cost of the ordeal to nearly $280,000.
Smith said that he is looking forward to the results of the Auditor General’s report.