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Toronto Community Housing to investigate ‘alleged improprieties and wrongdoing’

Eugene Jones, the president and CEO of Toronto Community Housing, and Bud Purves, chairman of TCHC, at a board meeting at the TCHC offices on Feb. 6, 2013.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Community Housing Corporation has hired a third-party firm to review what it calls "alleged improprieties and wrongdoing" involving some staff and vendors who do repairs and maintenance – incidents that it says could include kickbacks, double billing, shoddy repairs, or repairs that weren't done at all.

Eugene Jones Jr., who took over as TCHC's president and chief executive officer eight months ago, announced the investigation Wednesday and pledged to take action if wrongdoing is confirmed.

"However high it goes or however low it goes, whomever's perpetrating any criminal activity or wrongdoing or anything like that, I'm going after [them]," he told reporters at TCHC headquarters.

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Mr. Jones, who has a reputation for turning around U.S. housing agencies but whose current organization faces a massive repair backlog and tenant distrust, said he has spent hundreds of hours talking to staff, residents, councillors and other stakeholders.

He said he heard things that deeply disturbed him, namely the amount of money that was being wasted.

Mr. Jones said he received an anonymous tip in late 2012 about the alleged improprieties, prompting him to bring in the third-party firm to review TCHC's processes and practices for hiring vendors who do repairs.

He said the firm – which he declined to identify – has completed its preliminary examination, and will now conduct a formal review. The firm will report back by the second quarter of this year.

Mr. Jones said there are several types of wrongdoing that, upon first look, may have occurred.

"We have a pattern where we think there may be some kickbacks, there may be some improprieties, there may be double billing of work, there may be shoddy work, and so forth and so forth," he said. "Now we want to get to the bottom of it."

He said employees could face disciplinary action up to and including dismissal, and TCHC could pursue civil action to recover any money involved. He said the matter could also be turned over to Toronto police.

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He said he did not know how much money might be involved.

Councillor Maria Augimeri, who sits on the TCHC board, said there has been "a whisper campaign asking us to get to the bottom of alleged improprieties at public housing" for decades.

She said those whispers have "finally" been heard.

Ms. Augimeri recalled living in Toronto public housing as a teenager and how powerless residents could feel. She said the elevator in her old high-rise building – home to many seniors and disabled people – was routinely out of service, though repairs never seemed to be made.

Ms. Augimeri commended Mr. Jones for launching the review and for meeting with residents, including 30 young people, Monday night.

She said one teen shared a story about how his home didn't have working lights. She said Mr. Jones said he would send someone to the residence that very night.

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Councillor Ana Bailao, who is also on TCHC's board, said the review sends a strong message.

"I think we see in a lot of these buildings the conditions people are living in, and I think every penny counts in this instance. I think it's important that we ensure that there's no contractors taking advantage of the most vulnerable in our city," she said.

The TCHC, with 164,000 low- and moderate-income tenants, is the largest social housing provider in the country.

In 2011, the city's auditor-general ripped the TCHC for millions of dollars in improperly sole-sourced contracts and $200,000 in inappropriate expenses – including massages, chocolates, boat cruises and spa trips.

That report prompted Mayor Rob Ford to ask everyone on the board to resign.

He said at the time there was "a sense of entitlement that has got to go."

The mayor did not comment on the TCHC investigation Wednesday.

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