Toronto

Federally-funded non-profit fires senior staffer following investigation by Radio-Canada

A federally-funded economic development agency on Tuesday fired the senior executive who'd been running its Toronto office. 

Economic development agency had given man $90K post without verifying all his resume

Rene C. Viau, centre, was fired Tuesday from his job running the Toronto office of a federally-funded economic development agency. An investigation by Radio-Canada reveals the agency failed to verify false claims Viau made about his business experience. (@ReneCViau/Twitter)

A federally-funded economic development agency on Tuesday fired the senior executive who'd been running its Toronto office. 

The move comes in the wake of a Radio-Canada investigation that revealed the non-profit Société Économique de l'Ontario (SÉO) failed to verify claims the executive had made about his business experience.

SÉO's mission is to assist and promote Francophone entrepreneurs in the province, and it receives about $3 million a year from the federal government.

The agency announced Tuesday that it had "dismissed" René C. Viau as its regional director for central and southwestern Ontario.

"I explained to Mr. Viau that the bond of trust that led to his hiring is definitely broken and it is my job to ensure that the rules governing ethical standards are respected within the organization," said SÉO's executive director Luc Morin in a statement that also explicitly links the firing to Radio-Canada's revelations.  

Viau was hired for the $90,000-a-year job in April, putting him in charge of budgeting, financial management and strategy for the agency's Toronto location, one of its three offices in Ontario.

Viau had boasted that he'd run a company that's involved in some 25 green energy projects around the world, but Radio-Canada could not find evidence that about half of the projects actually exist. 

"I can, through my experiences in the business world, both locally and internationally, and with my many contacts, assist the SÉO in achieving the ambitious goals it has set for itself," said Viau in a news release the agency issued announcing his hiring. 

Officials in Olmstead County, Minnesota say Viau's company was not involved in its waste-to-energy facility, as the company claims. (County of Olmstead)

Viau's most recent business experience is running a company called American Clean Energy Solutions (ACES). On its website, ACES asserts it has projects on the go in Welland, Ont., in several U.S. states, and several African nations.

But officials in a dozen jurisdictions contacted by Radio-Canada said the firm's claims about its projects there are fictitious. Viau denies he has misrepresented his business experience. 

"We've never heard anything about this entity," said Brian P. Granahan, chief legal counsel of the Illinois Power Agency, where ACES claims to have launched a 200 MW coal mining waste conversion plant. 

ACES also claims to have been involved in the Olmstead County waste-to-energy plant in Rochester, Minn. County officials say ACES did not work on the project. After being contacted by Radio-Canada, a lawyer for the county sent Viau a cease-and-desist order to remove the claim from its website.

Similarly, officials in Thorold, Ont., Buffalo, Indianapolis and North Carolina deny the existence of projects that ACES claims have begun. 

Even though Société Économique de l'Ontario is focused on helping entrepreneurs, executive director Luc Morin admits that the agency did not verify Viau's claims about his entrepreneurial experience before hiring him, or since.

"I questioned him about the company during the [job] interview and he informed me that there was a team that was running this business," Morin told Radio-Canada. "I wasn't really preoccupied by this business." 

In an interview before Tuesday's firing, Morin called Viau "an exemplary person for the Francophone community of Toronto." 

The bulk of the agency's federal funding comes from Employment and Social Development Canada. A spokesperson for Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, Patricia Hajdu, declined to comment. 

Although the agency contacted Viau's references, it hired him without contacting any of his former employers.

"I do find it odd, I find it almost negligent not to do background checks, particularly for a senior executive," said Rick Powers, director of the governance program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. 

It is common practice in the business world to conduct background checks when hiring "anyone with budget responsibilities, anyone with people reporting to them," Powers told Radio-Canada in an interview.

In an interview before his firing, Viau maintained that all projects on his company's website are ongoing, despite the denials from municipal and state officials. 

"When we talk about renewable energy projects of significant magnitude, they are spread over years," said Viau. "These are all projects that have been discussed with the countries and groups in question and we are actually involved."

Radio-Canada's research also found that multiple passages on the ACES website are plagiarized from other sources, and images taken from other companies' website.

Viau neither confirmed nor denied that the content is plagiarized, but said the website was prepared by a partner who has since died, and he did not personally verify its contents.  

With files from Natasha MacDonald-Dupuis