Lester B. Pearson School Board insider raised concerns about international department in 2011

A high-ranking person within the Lester B. Pearson School Board raised concerns about a student recruiter who was “double dipping” and about expensive exchange trips abroad, up to five years before the Quebec government ordered an audit and an anti-corruption investigation, CBC News has learned.

‘Double-dipping’ recruiter, expensive trips among concerns in redacted document obtained by CBC

The Lester B. Pearson School Board, along with the English Montreal School Board, is facing a government-ordered audit and an anti-corruption investigation by UPAC. (CBC)

A high-ranking person within the Lester B. Pearson School Board raised concerns about a student recruiter who was "double dipping" and about expensive exchange trips abroad, up to five years before the Quebec government ordered an audit and an anti-corruption investigation began, CBC News has learned.

Heavily-redacted emails and documents obtained by CBC through an access to information request shed light on that unnamed person's longstanding apprehensions about the running of the board's international education department.

The unnamed writer is someone high enough in the board's hierarchy to have cheque-signing authority.

That person refers to a partnership agreement signed with an outside recruiting contractor that allegedly gave the recruiter a generous commission for each student recruited and a large share of the profits, while allegedly leaving the board on the hook for many expenses.

The heavily-redacted document, one of many obtained by CBC through an access to information request, was written by an unnamed high-ranking person within the board. (Ainslie MacLellan)
Board Chair Suanne Stein Day said the board started looking into alleged "irregularities" within its international department about three months before it passed on its concerns to the Education Ministry and Quebec's anti-corruption unit (UPAC) last spring.

Stein Day would not elaborate on the alleged irregularities, citing ongoing investigations.

Education Minister Sébastien Proulx announced an audit of both the Pearson board and the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) in late November. UPAC is also conducting investigations into both boards.

'Double dipping'

Among the redacted documents CBC received is an undated first-person account from a board insider alleging "incidents raising concerns about the international department" between 2011 and 2015.

According to the document, the 2011 partnership agreement with the recruiting contractor covered computer and network support and curriculum-related services, with revenues and expenses "to be split" 50-50.

On top of that, the recruiter allegedly received a hefty commission.

The document's author says that in 2013, he or she was asked to sign a cheque to the recruiter "at the rate of 35 per cent," a rate of commission which was "substantially above what we paid other agents."

The writer concluded that the recruitment partner was "in fact marking their costs up…making a profit on their recruiting services and then making half the profits of our partnership arrangement – double dipping."

The writer claimed to have suggested an audit but said the suggestion was rebuffed by someone else within the board who said "it would destroy the trust."

'Excessively high' rent

The same document states that in 2014, the author learned someone in the department had signed a contract for "rent, office administration costs and the salary of one employee in the [REDACTED] office. (This is all on top of the commission rates)."

"So we pay [REDACTED] premium amounts of commission to manage the greater process and ALSO pay the rent, admin costs and a salary and this is all charged [REDACTED] where they will receive 50% of the profits."

"The rent seemed excessively high for a very small space," the writer said, wondering if the board was paying for office space that wasn't being used for school board business.

'Expensive' exchange trips

The writer also raised concerns about exchange trips organized by the international department and who paid for them, noting "funds did not come from the allocated budget" and questioning why staff are sent to the same place year after year, noting "at least one principal went every year."

In a heavily redacted section discussing a 2014 trip, it appears from the document's context that the writer took part in the trip.

"During the [REDACTED] portion of the trip NO business was conducted," the writer said, expressing embarrassment "to have gone on such an expensive trip and not done any work."

After asking for a copy of the travel expenses in order to reimburse the board, the writer claimed to have been told a third party was covering the expenses, but the writer refused to "accept such a gift."

The writer goes on to suggest it was "worth checking" if people who took part in other trips reimbursed the board for their travel expenses or if "this was another 'gift."

Shared trip to India and China

Similar concerns were raised by another English school board, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, about a trip to India and China in August 2014, taken by representatives from both the Pearson and Laurier boards and from Edu Edge, a private international recruitment company.

At least one Sir Wilfrid Laurier board commissioner at the time, Mike Pizzola, raised questions about Edu Edge paying travel expenses, totalling roughly $10,000, for then-Laurier board chair, Nick Milas. 

Ultimately, however, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier board's ethics commissioner found that this did not violate the ethics code, said the board's current chair, Jennifer Maccarone.

"The commissioner found Mr. Milas to not be guilty of unethical conduct," said Maccarone.

The 2014 trip happened a month before the two boards and Edu Edge signed a 10-year partnership to open a health-care vocational centre for international students.

Ultimately, that centre never got off the ground, Maccarone said.

She said the government downgraded the status of the type of vocational program the centre was set to offer, making it less attractive to international students hoping to earn points towards obtaining permanent residency in Canada.

Maccarone said that partnership was dissolved last July.

No official confirmation of document's author

Stein Day would not comment on who wrote the document that raises so many concerns dating back to 2011, nor would she tell CBC News when it was written.

The lawyer for Carol Mastantuono, the former head of the international department fired earlier this year, declined to have his client comment on the allegations in the document. In a prior interview with CBC News, however, Mastantuono denied any wrongdoing.

CBC News has made repeated attempts to reach Naveen Kolan, president of Edu Edge, but calls and emails were not returned.