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New audits find Niagara Parks Commission abused expenses

Niagara Parks Commission's Chairwoman Fay Booker walks near the Niagara River just west of the Horseshoe Falls on My 18, 2011.

Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail/glenn lowson The Globe and Mail

Staff at the Niagara Parks Commission broke the rules for meals, travel and hospitality expenses, and untendered contracts were handed out without proper justification, according to new audits released Friday.

"Every hospitality expense claim sampled contained violations," the report stated. The audits covered expense claims of board members, senior management employees in two divisions and the top five travellers by cost each year.

One senior employee received a $3,970 discount from a commission venue that was applied to all food and alcohol at a wedding banquet for the employee's relative, according to the audit.

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Gratuities exceeding 20 per cent were often claimed despite a policy stating 15 per cent as the maximum, the audit said. The document mentions a tip of $172, or 66 per cent, being paid just after midnight.

One hotel statement from Tokyo for eight days in 2009 included laundry charges of about $275 without receipts or explanation.

The audit said receipts often contained alcohol expenses with meals, which would only be allowed if it were to extend hospitality. There were also some receipts that claimed only alcohol.

"I'm really disturbed," said Ontario Minister of Tourism and Culture Michael Chan, whose ministry oversees the government agency. "Such disregard of the rules ... I'm truly disappointed."

The commission's interim chair, Janice Thomson, said Friday she was not surprised by the findings of the audits, which covered periods between 2008 and 2010. Trouble at the commission surfaced when concerns were raised about the awarding of contracts. One was the 25-year lease extension for the Maid of the Mist tour boat, which was awarded without inviting rival bids, as reported by The Globe and Mail in 2009.

"[The audits have]shown us that there were gaps in many different areas," Ms. Thomson said.

The entire culture within the organization needs to be changed, she said.

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Before the audits, the province put a new board in place at the commission, which is set up to maintain Canadian tourism in the Niagara area.

The audits found that some relationships with vendors for extended periods of time went without written contracts and there were no centralized records of all contracts.

Ms. Thomson said many of the recommendations contained in the audits had already been put in place. Recently, three new employees have been hired to audit internally and deal with procurement. Beyond that, employees will be trained more thoroughly in policies that have been violated in the past, she said.

"That's because there were definite gaps in those areas," she said.

Mr. Chan said his ministry will be monitoring the agency and its implementation of the changes by requesting a report in three months. He said no estimate was available for the amount of money involved.

Bob Gale, who sat on the board between 2006 and 2009, complained about an untendered lease for the Maid of the Mist tour boat operation. It prompted an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation and subsequent provincial overhaul of the agency.

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While he is glad the audits are out, he said he is disappointed it took so long and wonders how much follow-up there will be.

"They have to follow-up on it," he said. "They can't just sweep it under the table."

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