City of Ottawa fraud line is being flooded with calls in 2021

Complaints to the City of Ottawa's fraud and waste hotline have already more than doubled the total in 2020, and the auditor general wonders if it is due to more tipsters being at home during the pandemic.

City's auditor general to add staff to deal with complaints and complex audits

Reports made to Ottawa's fraud line in 2021 have more than doubled the total from 2020. (Hugo Belanger/CBC)

Complaints to the City of Ottawa's fraud and waste hotline have already more than doubled the total in 2020, and the auditor general wonders if it is due to more tipsters being at home during the pandemic.

Residents will have to wait until April 2022 to learn what questionable activity is being reported anonymously to the fraud line when Nathalie Gougeon compiles and presents her annual report.

Past complaints have led to investigations where employees have been disciplined or fired. They've been found to have stolen patient medication, worked for other organizations while on sick leave, or leaked confidential information to friends and colleagues to help them pass provincial tests.

The number of complaints received by Gougeon's office recently surpassed 500 for 2021, and the year's not over. In 2020, a more typical 204 complaints came in and the auditor had topped 300 only once in the past decade.

The tips cover a variety of concerns, Gougeon said, when councillors asked her to explain the increase.

"It's also my understanding this is consistent with the trends members of council are experiencing with their own offices and receiving complaints," she said. "People might have more time on their hands during the pandemic, but that would be pure speculation."

It takes work and time to review all those reports, triage them, and determine what to investigate, Gougeon noted.

To help with the workload, the auditor's office will add two full-time positions next year for a total of 11 and a budget of $2.9 million. 

Even with that increase in staff, Gougeon notes she has a smaller proportion of a municipal operating budget than her counterparts in other Canadian cities.

The City of Ottawa's auditor general, Nathalie Gougeon, says she thinks people might be calling the hotline more because they are spending more time at home. (CBC)

Complicated audits ahead

The costs of an upcoming high-profile audit of Stage 1 of light rail don't figure into the auditor's 2022 budget. Council had agreed the light rail audit would be covered by using transit operating reserves — an unusual, but necessary arrangement, the city treasurer explained, because Gougeon's budget couldn't absorb it.

Gougeon said she has not yet received details from the Ontario government about what it intends to cover with its public inquiry. She is waiting to know its scope so her office's audit will not duplicate work.

That's not the only big file in the works. Auditors are already working on investigations into Ottawa Community Housing, the city's pandemic response, and the electric bus technology chosen by the city.

Gougeon launched the audit into electric buses once the city announced plans for a big purchase of a 450-vehicle fleet. In her first year on the job, the auditor has made it clear she will select audits based on the risk posed to the city, and will try to be nimble to deal with emerging concerns. 

Her team said Friday it might also readjust its plans if it becomes clear OC Transpo route planning or the Stage 2 light rail project require extra scrutiny.

As it stands, the auditor's office has formally identified a list of areas to review in 2022 and in 2023: 

  • Cybersecurity.
  • Affordable housing.
  • Controls and safeguards in the revenue branch.
  • Procedures and processes for preventing workplace violence and harassment.
  • Achieving the goals of the corporate diversity and inclusion plan.
  • Managing risks when making decisions.
  • Achieving the goals of the climate change master plan.
  • Managing roadways.