Ombudsman finds Niagara CAO hiring was "inside job"

November 29, 2019

29 November 2019

Regional council accepts all recommendations for reform

TORONTO (November 29, 2019) – Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé today called on the Regional Municipality of Niagara to improve its practices after his investigation found its hiring of former Chief Administrative Officer Carmen D’Angelo was “compromised” by confidential information leaked by insiders in the former Regional Chair’s office.

“The Regional Municipality of Niagara’s 2016 CAO hiring process was an inside job, tainted by the improper disclosure of confidential information to a candidate – a candidate who was ultimately successful and became the region’s most senior administrator,” Mr. Dubé writes in his report, entitled Inside Job.

Mr. D’Angelo was provided with confidential documents before and throughout the hiring process, the Ombudsman found. 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.

“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,” the Ombudsman notes. “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 makes 16 recommendations to the regional municipality to avert similar situations in future. Regional council has unanimously accepted all of the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

Mr. Dubé launched his investigation on August 30, 2018, after receiving 113 complaints about issues surrounding the CAO’s hiring. In total, the Ombudsman received 171 complaints about the matter. The investigation focused on three issues: The 2016 CAO hiring process, the amendment and extension of the CAO’s contract in 2017, and the regional municipality’s response to public concerns about the hiring in 2018 – including its appointment of a municipal ombudsman and external governance auditors.

Ombudsman investigators conducted 46 interviews and reviewed thousands of digital documents. The Ombudsman also engaged a respected 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 Mr. D’Angelo worked before he was hired by Niagara Region in the fall of 2016, showed that he envisioned the replacement of the regional municipality’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, Mr. D’Angelo downloaded eight documents containing confidential information or help from regional insiders to his NPCA computer.

After not quite a year on the job, Mr. D’Angelo’s contract was extended for three more years by the then-Chair without council’s knowledge, and amended to include a provision that he would receive 36 months’ notice of any termination, even it if were for cause. The Ombudsman chose not to make findings on the validity of the contract because it is before the courts; however, he found that Niagara Region’s failure to have a by-law to govern such a process was unreasonable.

The CAO hiring controversy first came to light in April 2018, when the St. Catharines Standard published the first in a series of articles revealing that documents had been leaked to Mr. D’Angelo during his recruitment. The regional municipality responded to these revelations by appointing a municipal ombudsman, followed by external governance auditors. The municipal ombudsman concluded that confidential information was not leaked to Mr. D’Angelo, and the auditors were directed to investigate matters beyond their capabilities. Regional council then asked the Ontario Ombudsman to investigate.

Ombudsman Dubé found that Niagara Region’s failure to set clear terms of reference for the municipal ombudsman or to ask the auditors if they had the necessary expertise was unreasonable. His report identifies best practices for such investigations.

The Ombudsman’s recommendations include several measures to ensure the municipality preserves the integrity of such processes in future, including that it have:

  • An employee code of conduct or ethics that provides for the protection of confidential information

  • Training for staff on the use of personal email and retention of corporate records

  • A bylaw setting the parameters of the relationship between council and the CAO

  • A policy setting out the process for hiring a CAO

  • Clear terms of reference for municipal ombudsman investigations

In addition to accepting all of the Ombudsman’s recommendations, Niagara Region has 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,” Mr. Dubé writes in the report. He strongly encourages municipalities across Ontario to study his report and recommendations, to guard against similar situations elsewhere.

This is the Ombudsman’s sixth general investigation of a municipality – and his second related to Niagara Region – since his mandate was expanded to include full oversight of municipalities as of January 1, 2016. To date, the Ombudsman has received more than 12,000 complaints about municipalities, almost all of which have been resolved informally.

The Ombudsman is an independent, impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature who resolves and investigates public complaints about more than 1,000 public sector bodies, including all provincial ministries, agencies, corporations, boards, commissions and tribunals, child protection services and French language services, as well as municipalities, universities and school boards. He does not overturn decisions of elected officials or set public policy, but makes recommendations to ensure administrative fairness, transparency and accountability. The Ombudsman received 27,419 complaints in 2018-2019 and his recommendations have been overwhelmingly accepted.

For further information, please contact:
Linda Williamson, Director of Communications, 416-586-3426