Manitoba·CBC Investigates

From BBQ brushes to brushes with the law: 10 memorable I-Team stories from 2017

The CBC I-Team began 2017 with a story connected to a major pocketbook item for a lot of people: the purchase of a car.

Alleged sexual misconduct at university, land deals and chiropractors' health claims also investigated

After seeing an I-Team investigation into extra fees added by car dealerships, Rémi Dupont complained to see if he could recoup an $899 charge on his purchase of a van. He succeeded. (CBC)

Stories as diverse as the health issue posed by barbecue brushes to a University of Manitoba sexual misconduct investigation were reported on by the CBC I-Team this year.

The team's investigative journalists filed freedom-of-information requests, did data scraping and, of course, received many tips from the public about important stories we should look into in 2017.

We began the year with a story connected to a major pocketbook item for a lot of people: the purchase of a car.

Last January, the I-Team found customers were getting refunds from car dealerships that had charged extra fees on top of the advertised price of a vehicle.

A previous I-Team story that highlighted a 2015 provincial law meant to protect buyers from surprise fees when buying a vehicle triggered complaints to the Manitoba Consumer Protection Office. Some 66 customers had received refunds from 27 dealerships.

Another 21 customers have received refunds or settlements since January, bringing the total to 87.

Betrayal of trust

When the I-Team analyzed the kinds of complaints people make about the lawyers they hire, we found many were hurt by misappropriation of money.

In February, we looked at the 10 cases the Law Society of Manitoba referred to police over a six-year period.

The lawyers had misappropriated more than $1.9 million.

While all 10 lawyers had been disbarred, none were charged criminally.

Then in September, charges, including fraud, theft and attempting to obstruct justice, were laid against one of the lawyers.

Nationally, from 2010 to the end of 2015, some 220 lawyers across Canada were disciplined for misappropriating $160 million. In that time, 19 faced criminal charges.

A CBC News analysis of public records over six years shows law societies in Canada sanctioned 220 members for taking or mishandling money from clients or overcharging them, either negligently or intentionally. (CBC)

Puzzling land deal

An Arizona real estate transaction raised eyebrows in Manitoba last March.

Armik Babakhanians — the owner of a construction company that built Winnipeg's police headquarters — paid former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz and former chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl $327,000 for interest in what we calculated to be about an acre of land in Buckeye, Ariz., a town west of Phoenix.

Babakhanians made the deal with a handshake in 2011, then later signed a handwritten agreement. At the time, the area was still feeling the effects of the 2008 U.S. housing crash.

By summer 2016, the land still hadn't been developed and was being used for cattle grazing. Taxes paid on it were $33 in 2016.

Katz, Sheegl and other investors bought their full 25-acre parcel of Arizona land in 2005, during a real estate boom, paying what CBC News calculated to be about $107,000 US, or about $125,000 Cdn, per acre.

Robert Tapper, lawyer for Katz and Sheegl, told the CBC about the Babakhanians land deal after RCMP alleged in court documents that Sheegl was paid $200,000 for showing favour to Babakhanians in the construction of the police headquarters building. The multimillion-dollar project has been the focus of a three-year fraud investigation.

The CBC asked real estate experts about the price Babakhanians paid Sheegl and Katz for his interest in the land, but they couldn't make sense of it.

A 'No Dumping' sign marks the entrance to Sam Katz and Phil Sheegl's Arizona land. It is zoned for more than 200 multi-family units but hasn't been developed. (CBC News)

Chiropractor claims

In March, the I-Team found dozens of chiropractors claimed to treat medical conditions such as autism, Tourette's syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, colic, infections and cancer. Some also published statements to discourage people from getting vaccinations.

A public health expert told CBC that puts those chiropractors at odds with many public health policies or medical research.

"There is no evidence that chiropractic is effective in treating cancer and autism and any of those things that they are apparently claiming that they can treat," said Dr. Alan Katz, director of the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy.

After our story, the Manitoba Chiropractors Association did an in-depth review of chiropractors' websites and asked that they remove content outside the scope of practice for the profession, and all the chiropractors involved have complied with the request, executive director Lisa Goss said.

The Manitoba Chiropractors Association has developed a quarterly review process to make sure the content on its members' web sites meets standards. (Shutterstock)

​Condo charges

In April, the I-Team reported on a 20-unit development, Riverside Glen, which was the subject of a flurry of lawsuits. Among the problems: condo owners had learned city building inspectors deemed there was a risk of structural failure.

The case also landed in provincial court, with 56 charges against the developer for not following orders issued by the city to fix the problems.

An engineer who worked on the project was disciplined by Engineers Geoscientists Manitoba, the professional regulatory body, but the regulators didn't notify the public about the discipline.

The condo owners also grappled with new home warranty coverage limited to $50,000 per condo — far less than the estimated $150,000 they said would be needed for repairs on each home affected.

Legacy Homes faced 56 charges in provincial court for not following orders by the city to fix problems in the Riverside Glen condos in west Winnipeg. (CBC)

RCMP staff vacancies

When the I-Team looked into staff vacancy rates at the RCMP in Manitoba last April, one municipal official said of the national police service: "They definitely don't have enough people."

Through an access-to-information request to the RCMP, we learned the vacancy rate for RCMP officer positions in Manitoba was eight per cent. That meant out of 1,063 RCMP regular members in Manitoba, there were 86.5 positions vacant.

"Get more police officers out there," said Emerson reeve Greg Janzen. It can take up to an hour for police to respond to serious incidents such as a traffic accident in the community near the U.S. border, he said.

We also reported staffing shortages at the RCMP's telecommunications centre had reached a "critical level" with 35 per cent of positions vacant, said an internal staff note sent to all Manitoba RCMP officers in May.

Records released under an access-to-information request said there were 86.5 vacancies out of 1,063 RCMP regular member positions in Manitoba. (CBC)

Prepaid funerals: Where's the money?

The I-Team reported last May that a woman who had prepaid $4,050 for a prearranged funeral learned the company she signed with is no longer in business, and she didn't know how to get her money back.

"We have no idea where this money has gone. It was supposed to be held in trust to be used at the time of the funeral," said Maggie Berthelette, the woman's daughter.

Rosemarie Markewich, right, and her daughter Maggie Berthelette were left wondering what happened to the $4,050 Markewich paid for a prearranged funeral. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Brush with danger

At the height of the summer grilling season, the I-Team learned Health Canada had begun a risk assessment of the safety of wire-bristle brushes used to clean barbecue grills.

The sharp wire bristles can come off the brushes, get stuck in food cooked on the grills and cause injury when they're accidentally ingested. The risk assessment was based on nine reported incidents since 2011.

In December, the I-Team reported Health Canada's followup report decided against banning sales of the brushes. Instead, it will encourage retailers to work with their suppliers to make the brushes safer.

Health Canada has now received reports of 55 incidents since 2011, officials said in December.

Health Canada has decided against banning the sale of wire-bristle barbecue brushes, and is instead leaving brush safety mostly in the hands of industry and grillers, according to its latest risk assessment report. 0:18

Sexual misconduct

Just as sexual misconduct allegations started to surface in different spheres, from politics to the entertainment industry, September brought news that celebrated jazz professor and musician Steve Kirby had parted ways with the University of Manitoba.

An internal investigation report found Kirby repeatedly made inappropriate sexual comments and unwanted sexual contact with a female student, the I-Team reported.

A number of other women also filed complaints about Kirby last February.

Kirby did not speak to CBC News, but the university said he retired in late June.

In the university's internal investigation report, Kirby "denies all claims made of any sexual innuendo or outright sexual approaches."

Steve Kirby was the subject of sexual harassment allegations by students and former students of the University of Manitoba's jazz program. (CBC)

The price of death

In November, the I-Team reported that only a handful of people have been jailed across Canada for violating workplace safety laws in connection with the death of a worker. Five employers served time behind bars, with terms ranging from 15 to 120 days.

Out of 251 cases reviewed, going back as far as 2007, the median fine levied across the country — including victim surcharges and other amounts — was $97,500. Manitoba's median fine was well below that at $78,000.

We also highlighted the June 2012 concert stage collapse near Toronto that killed Scott Johnson, a drum technician for the British rock band Radiohead. That case will now be the subject of an inquest.

Rescue workers head to the entrance of the Westray coal mine in Plymouth, N.S., on May 12, 1992, after an explosion killed 26 men. This disaster set the stage for a national discussion about worker safety and changes to the Criminal Code. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

With files from Katie Nicholson, Jacques Marcoux, Caroline Barghout, Kristin Annable, Joanne Levasseur, Katie Pedersen and Vera-Lynn Kubinec.

Got a tip for the CBC News I-Team? Email or call the confidential tip line at 204-788-3744.