AG re­port clears for­mer NPCA board mem­ber

Re­port re­futes claims by con­ser­va­tion au­thor­ity that Bill Hodg­son cor­rupted au­di­tor hir­ing process in 2016

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Front Page - GRANT LAFLECHE AND BILL SAWCHUK Stan­dard Staff

The Au­di­tor Gen­eral had the last word on Ni­a­gara Penin­sula Con­ser­va­tion Au­thor­ity’s cen­sure of for­mer board mem­ber Bill Hodg­son — he didn’t do what he was ac­cused of.

But the Lin­coln re­gional coun­cil­lor is in no mood to cel­e­brate.

“I’ve al­ready spo­ken my piece,” said Hodg­son, who isn’t seek­ing re-elec­tion. “When I look at the au­dit, there are a lot more im­por­tant things in there than the part about me.

“Clearly, from what they have said about Thun­der­ing Wa­ters, they aren’t ac­cept­ing the au­di­tor’s con­clu­sions — and Thun­der­ing Wa­ters is re­ally where all of this started.

“It’s just more of the same. They are de­ter­mined to keep pok­ing the pub­lic in the eye.”

In April 2017, NPCA board chair and Fort Erie re­gional coun­cil­lor Sandy An­nun­zi­ata pub­licly cen­sured Hodg­son. He said Hodg­son had cor­rupted the hir­ing process for an au­di­tor.

NPCA hired Toronto law firm Gowl­ing WLG, which pro­duced a re­port An­nun­zi­ata based the cen­sure on. An­nun­zi­ata claimed the re­port showed his ac­cu­sa­tions were facts, but would not re­lease the re­port.

The Stan­dard later ob­tained the doc­u­ment, which said Hodg­son emailed a for­mer col­league who ex­pressed in­ter­est in bid­ding on the au­dit con­tract.

“Thank you for your in­ter­est in the process to un­der­take an op­er­a­tional re­view at the NPCA. I will be pleased to for­ward your email to the act­ing CAO … He has been di­rected by the board to ini­ti­ate a com­pet­i­tive pro­cure­ment process to re­tain the ser­vices of an in­de­pen­dent third party,” Hodg­son’s email read.

An­nun­zi­ata told the NPCA board that Hodg­son’s ac­tions had “cor­rupted” the process and it was “not a sit­u­a­tion we can tol­er­ate.” The au­di­tor hir­ing process was then can­celled.

NPCA cir­cu­lated a let­ter an­nounc­ing its de­ci­sion to Ni­a­gara Re­gional Chair Alan Caslin and re­gional coun­cil as well as Ni­a­gara’s mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and the may-

ors and coun­cils of Hamil­ton, Lin­coln and Haldimand.

The let­ter said the find­ings of the Gowl­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­di­cated Hodg­son’s ac­tions “could po­ten­tially and rea­son­ably be seen by an ob­jec­tive ob­server as an at­tempt to in­flu­ence the RFP process as an im­plicit en­dorse­ment in favour of a po­ten­tial bid­der.”

The Stan­dard found the Gowl­ing re­port is miss­ing key in­for­ma­tion about the al­le­ga­tions and that the firm didn’t con­tact Hodg­son when it pro­duced the re­port, which Hodg­son was not al­lowed to read when cen­sured.

Hodg­son re­sponded by re­sign­ing from the board and ac­cused board mem­bers of bul­ly­ing him.

Au­di­tor Gen­eral Bonnie Lysyk’s re­port re­leased late last month re­futed An­nun­zi­ata’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the email.

“Our au­dit found other in­stances of board mem­ber in­volve­ment in day-to-day op­er­a­tions that could be per­ceived as ex­er­cis­ing un­due in­flu­ence on staff,” Lysyk’s re­port said. “We did not con­sider (Hodg­son’s) email to be in the same cat­e­gory.”

Hodg­son be­lieves the an­i­mos­ity from some board mem­bers was driven by his at­tempts to chart a new course for NPCA in its re­sponse to pub­lic crit­i­cism of its op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing the agency’s at­tempt to help a de­vel­oper build on provin­cially pro­tected wet­lands in Ni­a­gara Falls.

NPCA’s ad­vo­cacy — which was noted in Lysyk’s re­port — con­vinced many that the con­ser­va­tion au­thor­ity had lost sight of its man­date. The agency’s failed $200,000 defama­tion suit against ac­tivist Ed Smith, who is­sued a re­port crit­i­cal of NPCA’s prac­tices, only added to the per­cep­tion.

“I was try­ing to tell them they needed to take steps to re­build pub­lic trust, which was one of their most im­por­tant as­sets,” Hodg­son said. “It didn’t mean they were ad­mit­ting guilt.

“What they did in­stead showed them­selves to be tone deaf and un­able to re­pair the dam­age. They dou­bled down on all of it and treated me as a co-con­spir­a­tor with Ed Smith. They thought I was just play­ing for ova­tions, but I’ve never done that in my life.”

An­nun­zi­ata did not ac­knowl­edge mul­ti­ple in­ter­view re­quests for this story.

In an email, NPCA spokes­woman Krys­tle Ca­puto said An­nun­zi­ata will not dis­cuss the Au­di­tor Gen­eral re­port be­cause “only the au­di­tor gen­eral may speak to her re­port.”

Asked what reg­u­la­tion pro­hibits NPCA from dis­cussing the re­port, Ca­puto said there are no reg­u­la­tions, but NPCA “feels” only the au­thors of re­ports should speak about them.

The Stan­dard asked why An­nun­zi­ata will not dis­cuss his own de­ci­sions and ac­tions and the Au­di­tor Gen­eral’s find­ings on the is­sue, but got no re­ply from Ca­puto or An­nun­zi­ata.

She di­rected re­porters to a 2017 in­ter­view An­nunizata gave to a com­mu­nity pub­li­ca­tion writ­ten be­fore The Stan­dard ob­tained the Gowl­ing doc­u­ment and the Au­di­tor Gen­eral’s re­port was is­sued.

Bill Hodg­son

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