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Patrick Brown has survived past scandals. Will this latest controversy finally sink him?


Patrick Brown has survived past scandals. Will this latest controversy finally sink him?

Once again, Patrick Brown is campaigning amid controversy.

In 2018, during his first campaign to become mayor of Brampton, Brown’s appeal to diverse populations and popular policy promises won the day, despite the fact he was on the hustings after allegations of sexual impropriety forced him to step down as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party — allegations CTV News later admitted contained “factually incorrect” information.

Now, after four rocky years in the mayor’s office, and a failed run for leadership of the federal Conservative party, his first term is ending with the controversial cancellation of a critical spending audit — the details of which have been obtained by the Star — a deeply divided council and a desperate plea from his opponents for provincial intervention in the city.

Will these latest allegations be the ammunition his critics need to see the mayor defeated — or will he prove once again to be the unsinkable Patrick Brown?

To his supporters, Brown is a seasoned politician who connects across communities, has broken down the barriers at city hall and has brought national attention to Canada’s fastest-growing city, all while enacting a popular tax freeze.

But his detractors accuse him of questionable practices — from being ejected from the federal Conservative leadership race after allegations, which he denies, of campaign finance irregularities, to concerns about contract procurements in Brampton.

The latest controversy involves Brown and his allies on city council shutting down a forensic audit of spending on a proposal to get a university built in Brampton, prompting allegations of a “coverup” from one councillor.

The audit found “unfair advantage” had been given in the awarding of contracts to two firms — one with ties to Brown, and one with ties to a city councillor — and said there was a lack of evidence that all of the work the city expected was completed.

Brown said the audit itself is questionable, and that he did nothing wrong in moving with some city councillors to shut the probe down before it could issue its final report.

“Mayor Brown felt that … the investigation into Brampton U was highly political,” said his director of communications, Gary Collins, calling it a “waste of money.”

The allegations — and other controversies during his term — may have little impact on Brown’s seemingly Teflon political career.

But as voters go to the polls, will it be possible for them to ignore the shadow of controversy that seems to follow all of his political ventures?

There are also questions — even from some who supported Brown in the last election — over whether he can truly unify and move Brampton forward, given the controversies of the past four years.

“I fully supported Patrick Brown and campaigned for him very hard on behalf of the Portuguese community. I pulled a lot of people to go vote and trust Patrick Brown,” said Manuel Alexandre, a leader in the Portuguese community and a Brampton resident for the past 44 years.

“But this time, definitely not with what I’ve seen at city hall and with Patrick Brown.”

Alexandre said council clashes with senior city staff were also a disappointment, and he doesn’t think the city should have spent so much time, energy and money chasing a university.

“After four years, the trust is gone,” he said.

This term of Brampton city council has been marked by boycotts of meetings by warring factions, news conferences in which Brown and others accused other councillors of misappropriating public funds, and the dismissal of several senior staff members who are now suing the city.

The most recent controversy erupted during the last council meeting of this term. Brown’s political opponents have accused him of a “coverup” for shutting down a forensic audit into the procurement process for the university project.

Confidential reports, commissioned by Brampton council and obtained by the Star, indicate numerous questions were raised by independent auditors about transparency and favouritism on procurement practices as the city explored the viability of a university.

The city commissioned the work after the provincial government cancelled $90 million of funding to establish a satellite campus of Toronto Metropolitan University (then known as Ryerson University) in Brampton in 2018.

The auditors, Froese Forensic Partners, concluded in a report that work awarded to two firms in that effort — Stakeholder Research Associates Canada (SRA) and the Academy for Sustainable Innovation Canada Inc. (ASI) — involved individuals who had connections to Brown and Coun. Rowena Santos, according to documents obtained by the Star.

The documents state that David Wheeler, founder of SRA and co-founder of ASI, was Santos’s professor when she was in university, and had remained a “friend and mentor” over the years. The audit says Wheeler was awarded an “initial sole source” contract to write a white paper on how the city could develop a strategy for obtaining a university, which gave him access to city staff and project details.

Santos noted that while her mentor was involved in one of the firms named in the audit, she was not in a conflict and was fully cleared by the city’s integrity commissioner.

The audit also found that the consultant with SRA was Rob Godfrey, whom Brown had acknowledged as a close ally and friend.

Godfrey, who now works with HEXO, a company which produces high-quality cannabis products, did not respond to questions from the Star sent via HEXO’s office.

The audit — which was ordered by a majority of council in May seeking answers as to how more than $600,000 was paid to the firms — says those two firms were given an “unfair advantage … within the procurement process.”

It concludes Wheeler had “knowledge, information and relationships that were not available to other vendors,” such as the city’s budget and scope of the work, which allowed his companies to develop pitches to meet the city’s specifications.

Wheeler, who left ASI and is now a principal with a consulting company based in Costa Rica, did not respond to questions from the Star.

The report said there was “insufficient information” to conclude whether the work contracted by the city had been completed, given the lack of details on the invoices and the lack of supporting documentation.

It also noted that rather than payments being made at deliverables or project milestones, a schedule of payments was approved without requiring any status updates.

But rather than seeing the audit completed, Brown and four of his council allies voted to end the investigation pre-emptively and referred reviews of the requests for proposals in question to the city’s integrity commissioner — despite the fact Brampton’s city clerk said the matter “was outside the purview of the integrity commissioner.”

Frustrated and calling it a “coverup,” Coun. Jeff Bowman stormed out of the meeting.

“This is a 100 per cent attempt to silence everything that has gone on in this council,” he said then.

Last month, Bowman was at Queen’s Park, pleading with the provincial government to intervene — and, specifically, to exclude Brown from being granted so-called “strong mayor” powers should he win again. (New provincial legislation will delegate additional mayoral powers to Toronto and Ottawa, but they are expected to be extended to other mayors at some point.)

“It is time that Brampton asks for assistance from the provincial government, for the premier to block Mr. Brown from abusing his powers in an expanded way, and for the ombudsman to complete the (request for proposal) investigations,” said Bowman, who was first elected to Brampton council in 2014 and is not seeking re-election this year.

The offices of Premier Doug Ford and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark did not respond to inquiries from the Star about what action might be taken should Brown be re-elected.

Collins, Brown’s communications director, described Bowman’s call for provincial intervention as the type of “stunt” that is “common during election season.”


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“We have an ombudsman, an integrity commissioner and an internal audit process for these types of investigations,” he wrote in an email.

Brown didn’t comment on the findings of the report.

Santos said in an email that she supported shutting down the audit because it “had ballooned in both time (three months instead of one) and money ($150,000 with the auditor asking for another $50,000).”

She also said the draft report “included inaccurate information” and was “used as justification to initiate a political witch hunt.”

Despite the political baggage he carries, Brown has remained popular where it matters — among the voting populace of Brampton.

“Sometimes I wonder how we got so lucky to have a mayor like him,” said Mian Nadeem, a local resident and businessman. “I feel very blessed he is our mayor.”

Nadeem said Brown is seen as a friend of the Muslim community, and has helped its leaders navigate city hall for various permits. “I respect him, because he really gives us respect as a community.”

Brown, whose connection to Brampton was his father’s law practice, was welcomed in 2018 by those who hoped he would bring a fresh outlook to city politics. On election night, he eked out a victory over incumbent mayor Linda Jeffrey.

Gael Miles, who stepped down as a Brampton councillor in 2018 after 30 years, said that while the “majority of residents don’t have a clue around what is happening at city hall,” it had already seen years of turmoil when Brown entered the scene. She said he inherited a political culture where “councillors and the mayor were always at odds” under the previous two mayors, Susan Fennell and Jeffrey.

“He didn’t start the dysfunction,” Miles said. “It was already here.”

She praised his leadership during the pandemic, and added that one of Brown’s greatest strengths has been his ability to connect with the city’s diverse communities without tokenizing them.

“He relates to everyone,” she said. “He’s able to really connect with people around the issues and concerns that they have.”

But to critics, Brown has been an ineffective leader. “The problem was that you had a council where the majority had little political history. I call that a perfect storm for disaster,” said Elaine Moore, a former city councillor who has remained influential in Brampton politics.

Moore said that despite the many missteps of previous councils, they had developed long-term plans for arts and culture, urban forestry and economic development that were intended to provide a vision for the city and guide future councils.

“This council has abandoned everything,” said Moore, who supported Brown’s mayoral bid in 2018. “They are good at tearing things apart, but don’t know how to rebuild.”

Brown’s allies dismiss that criticism.

“The old guard may not like Patrick but he has a record of accomplishment unparalleled in Brampton’s municipal history,” said his campaign manager, John Mykytyshyn.

Among those achievements, Mykytyshyn listed free transit for seniors, funding for two recreation centres, and financing to electrify the entire transit fleet.

Brown had larger political ambitions while serving as mayor of Brampton, announcing a bid for the leadership of the federal Conservative party in March. He was disqualified from that contest in July over allegations — which he denies through his lawyer — that he broke federal campaign finance laws.

Days after his disqualification, Brown announced he would seek re-election as mayor, angering some Brampton residents.

“Number one, he should have never run for leadership of the Conservative party,” said Alexandre. “People were not happy … We felt like second-class people when he abandoned us. It meant his heart was not in the right place.”

In an email, Collins said Brown would be “giving up his partisan membership” to remain neutral in municipal politics.

But his re-election bid prompted heavyweight political strategists Nick Kouvalis and Marcel Wieder to work on the competing campaign of Nikki Kaur, a former city staffer and whistleblower who was fired and then reinstated after raising allegations of wrongdoing at Brampton city hall. Kaur’s backers also include the current councillor Bowman, the former councillor Moore and the former mayor Jeffrey.

Kaur is one of five people running against Brown for the city’s top job. Also running are Vidya Sagar Gautam, Prabh Kaur Mand, Tony Moracci and Bob Dosanjh Singh.

In an interview, Kaur said she has a unique perspective on the “mismanagement, failed leadership and lack of accountability” she saw as a senior staff member at city hall.

Kaur said Brampton needs someone “who they can trust, who will look out for their interests.” She said her priorities for the city will include a focus on crime, a review of the city’s finances, and reinstating the neighbourhood watch program.

As for the cancelled probe into spending on Brampton’s university bid, “Why was the audit cancelled?” Kaur asked. “Again and again, no respect for the taxpayer, no respect for the fact that people work so hard to make ends meet.”

Singh, another mayoral candidate, said Brampton needs a clean slate, and both of his high-profile competitors come with too much baggage.

He said that “Brampton residents wear their city’s reputation like a mark of shame,” and that the city has become a national laughingstock under Brown.

“Business owners like me, and residents doubt the ability of the city to govern itself,” said Singh.

He said if he becomes mayor, his goal will be to “unify a deeply divided city council, and return city hall to the normal business of government.”

Brown, who won the 2018 race with 44 per cent of the vote, hopes to return to the mayor’s office “with a much larger mandate,” his campaign said in a statement. While that outcome remains to be seen, what’s certain is that three of his critics on city council won’t be back to oppose him — unlike the mayor, they are not seeking re-election.

The statement said his priorities for the next four years include additional investments in community safety through the hiring of police officers, and a focus on job creation.

“Mayor Brown looks forward to having a council ready to support his ambitious agenda for the city,” it said.

“And of course, he is willing to work with everyone, regardless of who they support in the election.”

Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering city news with interest in 905 municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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