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Forged inspection documents shine light on Ontario's troubled building department practices

Early this year Gerald Catt discovered that his credentials were on documents confirming the safety of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems he didn't know existed.

'They don’t understand the consequences of what can happen,' says CEO of engineering group

According to the provincial engineering regulator, seals like the one pictured should be dated and signed, preferably by hand. They say "clients and other parties should not accept a document that has been sealed but has not been signed or dated." (City of Brantford)

An Ontario engineer is raising the alarm after his credentials were forged, he says, on documents for construction projects across southern Ontario. 

Early this year, Gerald Catt of Vanessa, Ont., discovered his professional seal and signature were used to confirm the safety of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems he had never worked on or heard of. 

A CBC investigation has uncovered that similar documents exist for 12 large scale construction and renovation projects spread across Brantford, Cambridge, Hamilton, London, Oakville and Whitby. 

Despite irregularities with how his seal and signature appeared, and that Catt was unknown to some of the building departments, no one ever contacted him to confirm if the documents were legitimate, he said. 

Some of the buildings were found to be open to the public without municipal officials having received a final safety report at all, let alone one of questionable origin. 

Inspections ensure mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems work and are safe, according to Catt, and when reviews are skipped the public is put at risk. 

"These things are in the Ontario building code for a reason," he said, and building officials should be ensuring the rules are followed.

"I can personally give you a whole list of properties that have never been inspected," Catt said. "Are they safe? Who knows? Nobody cares."

The danger of failure

"This isn't unique to Gerald," said Sandro Perruzza, CEO of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, the province's largest engineer advocacy group.

"I've talked to a lot of my members who are consulting engineers and have their own practice and they've shared with me similar stories."

Perruzza says he sees a connection between what Catt has encountered and the Elliot Lake mall tragedy. In 2012, a portion of the roof at the Algo Centre Mall collapsed, killing two women and injuring 19 others. 

Inquiry commissioner Paul Belanger said "Although it was rust that defeated the structure of the Algo Mall, the real story of the collapse is one of human, not material, failure." (Nathan Denette / Reuters)

Former Ontario judge Paul Belanger headed the inquiry into what went wrong.  

"Many of those whose calling or occupation touched the mall displayed failings," Belanger wrote in his summary, highlighting cursory inspections by engineers and a lack of competence among building officials.

"Occasional voices of alarm blew by deaf and callous ears," he wrote. 

Decades of exposure to water corroded steel beams supporting the mall's roof, causing them to fail. 

"Everyone knew there was an issue, everyone knew that things weren't followed through," Perruzza said. "Everyone thinks someone else is going to take care of it."

The work certified in Catt's name was not structural and CBC spoke with a number of engineers who said its failure would not cause a building to collapse. However, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems come with their own set of concerns.

"If the power goes out and you can't see how to get out of a building, or the power goes out because there is a fire," there could be injuries or deaths, Catt said. 

"If somebody is lying on a gurney under a vehicle working on it and the levels of carbon monoxide start building up on the floor and he falls asleep and nobody notices, he may never wake up."

Document origins

Many of the documents bearing Catt's credentials contain the letterhead of his former employer, an engineering services firm hired by a construction company responsible for each overall project. 

The former employer did not respond to requests for comment.

For legal reasons CBC is not naming the companies involved or the exact locations of the buildings.

Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) is the provincial engineering regulator. They have the power to strip an engineer of their license and set the rules for how the profession should be practiced. 

According to PEO guidelines, an engineer's stamp should always have a date and signature, preferably handwritten, within or beside it. Their website states "clients and other parties should not accept a document that has been sealed but has not been signed or dated."

Best practice is to sign and date within the small blank spaces on the seal itself, according to Catt — a practice adhered to by two other engineers on documents acquired as part of this investigation. 

CBC received 15 safety sign-off documents bearing Catt's seal that were accepted by Brantford building officials. None were dated and the signature appeared well away from the stamp.

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      The documents are dated between 2016 and 2019. Catt says no one contacted him during this time to check if he had truly done the inspections. 

      In an email to CBC, a communications official with the City of Brantford said they do not keep signatures on file and would have no way to substantiate if they were fraudulent or authentic.

      They also said Brantford had co-operated with a PEO investigation into the "alleged falsification of documents," and that if the investigation finds fraud occurred, they will contact the police.

      Citing confidentiality rules, PEO would not confirm or deny that an investigation is taking place. 

      Common problems

      Having received information that this issue went beyond just Brantford, Catt says he called officials in nearby Cambridge.

      "I wanted them to know, so that hopefully they would go back and make sure the building was safe," Catt said. 

      As part of the conversation, he requested to see documents for a project he had never worked on but suspected his credentials were used for.

      An official responded to the request by email three days later, saying Catt's name and signature were on the document but he would have to submit a freedom of information request in order to see it.

      Freedom of information requests can take months to complete. 

      Gerald Catt has been a practicing engineer for 44 years. (Submitted by Gerald Catt)

      "I don't understand that," Catt said, "Why would they do that? Other than to make it difficult or, I don't know, cover it up."

      When Catt reached out to officials about a building in London, he found more issues.

      The business had been welcoming customers for many months, but London's development and compliance department admitted they had never received final safety sign offs from the engineer or architect involved.

      "If I hadn't inquired," Catt said, "how many years would [they] operate the [business] with no review by either the architect or engineer?"

      London officials declined to answer questions from CBC about their building department practices and whether other buildings in the city were open without having been inspected, saying only that "we don't provide comment on specific buildings or businesses."

      When CBC notified the Town of Whitby that a building in their municipality had a similar issue, they pointed to the construction company.

      After renovating the building, the company was supposed to notify town officials 10 days prior to it's reopening, they said. 

      "In this case, the town did not receive a request for re-inspection prior to opening."

      According to Catt, since CBC began investigating, he has received requests to conduct retroactive inspections. He has inspected and signed off on buildings in London, Whitby and Hamilton. Officials from Hamilton have also asked him to confirm his involvement with construction projects not included in CBC's investigation.

      About the Author

      Matt is a reporter and associate producer at CBC. You can reach him at matthew.pierce@cbc.ca.

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