Ombudsman report on Niagara CAO fiasco vindicates local journalists

Shocking recital of corrupt hiring practices

A recently released report by the Provincial Ombudsman outlines in detail a brazen plot to get rid of the Region’s former CAO and replace him with a hand-picked candidate. In so doing the report validates a series of investigative stories that appeared in the St Catharine’s Standard, who first broke the story in 2018. According to Paul Dube’s 74-page report the sequence of events started with an ongoing battle between the Region’s former CAO Harry Schlange and then Regional Chair Alan Caslin. Schlange objected to taking direct personal orders from Caslin, reminding his chair that the CAO is answerable to Council as a whole, not the Regional Chair alone. The report cites Niagara employees reporting overhearing shouting matches between the two.

Unknown to Schlange, Regional Chair Caslin developed a scheme to fire Schlange and replace him with Carmen D’Angelo, then CAO of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority—a man with personal relationships with several members of Niagara Regional Council who also served on the Conservation Authority Board. The report said D’Angelo had a copy of a timeline that outlined the steps for his ascension to the CAO job at the same time as he phoned the beleaguered Schlange to tell him to “keep his chin up.” Before he could be fired, Schlange abruptly resigned as CAO to take a post in Brampton, opening the door for the D’Angelo appointment. Although a search firm was involved in the hiring process, their efforts were undercut by behind-the-scenes manipulation by Caslin and members of his personal staff. The report describes a process that saw D’Angelo provided with profiles of his rival candidates, and the answers to a list of questions that were going to be put to all candidates.

D’Angelo was hired at a salary of $230,000 per year—a salary that was increased to $250,000 without a formal performance review. Not surprisingly the tainted process had a negative effect on staff morale the workplace became filled with rumors, and watercooler chatter. Apparently a member or members of staff turned to the St. Catharine’s Standard with their concerns. Sensing the potential for trouble and with the St Catharine’s Standard working on its expose, D’Angelo negotiated a secret contract extension with Regional Chair Caslin with a severance clause that would provide D’Angelo with three years severance if he were fired. The agreement was not revealed to Council, consisting simply of a letter signed by Caslin.

When the Standard story first broke, council’s response was to launch an investigation to identify the whistle-blower. As a result of the Standard stories and their re-publishing in several other Niagara Region newspapers, the public became incensed. In the 2018 municipal election an aroused electorate decimated roughly half of the Regional Council and kicked out 30 local councillors. Another 30 local councillors opted not to run again. Four Mayors went down to defeat, either in running for re-election or running for a seat on regional council. Chair Caslin finished 20th in the race for Regional council, and was replaced by political veteran Jim Bradley. Defeated with Caslin were several members of what was termed the “cabal”—a group of regional councillors seen responsible for the D’Angelo hiring and other instances of cronyism. In their last act, the lame-duck regional Council voted to allow D’Angelo to go on a trade mission to China.

The new council moved quickly to clean house. D’Angelo went on medical leave and later resigned, launching a wrongful dismissal suit against the Region. Other Caslin employees who had been involved in the affair were let go. The question of whether D’Angelo’s secret contract extension and severance is valid is before the courts.

In plain language the Ombudsman summed up the affair: “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.” The whole file has been handed over to the OPP for possible criminal charges.

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