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How a financial scandal rocked an Ontario agency for vulnerable children

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After years of turmoil — ranging from allegations of a toxic work culture to financial mismanagement and even arrests — at a children’s agency in Peel Region, a figure at the centre of the scandal is speaking out.

“It’s been a long two years, let’s just say, for family, for myself,” Marino Cader, the former head of finance for Peel Children’s Aid Society (CAS), told Global News.

Cader was arrested by police in November 2022, along with another employee, and charged with an alleged scheme to defraud Peel Children’s Aid Society. The publicly funded organization helps children and families at their most vulnerable in Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga.

Charges against Cader were withdrawn on May 3 by Crown prosecutors in a case both the defence and prosecution agreed was marked by police disclosure issues.

In withdrawing the charges, the Crown said there “remains a public interest in proceeding” but that there was no “reasonable chance of conviction” in a case that had dragged on close to the 18-month limit established as reasonable in Canada.

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The former finance director said he’s struggled to “drown out that stigma” that comes with articles about his arrest every time a potential employer searches his name and is now pursuing a civil case against Peel CAS. The agency is also seeking damages from him in its own claim.

“My kids have gone through a lot, obviously the stuff that’s come out in the media,” Marino Cader told Global News in an exclusive interview. “I was not able to speak out at the advice of legal counsel at the time. As much as I wanted to say stuff, I couldn’t.”

A Global News investigation based on leaked documents, interviews with current and former Peel CAS employees, court filings and freedom of information requests reveals how an agency tasked with helping vulnerable youth became embroiled in a financial scandal, criminal arrests and questions about an alleged scheme around gift cards.

Allegations of broken culture

The public story of dysfunction within Peel Children’s Aid began to develop after the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, spurred by a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

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Then-CEO Rav Bains had presided over a long and at times controversial period with the organization, which included a 2016 strike, the longest labour action in the history of children’s aid in Ontario.

Internal pressure on Bains came to a head in 2020 when a report commissioned by the organization’s union in light of the death of George Floyd and subsequent conversations around diversity found issues of anti-Black racism within the organization.

Eventually, after an investigation ordered by the provincial government found more issues and a “seriously troubled” workplace, a group of senior managers went over Bains’ head to complain about the CEO to the board’s then-president.

Four senior leaders — including Cader — who all reported directly to Bains sent a 17-page letter at the end of 2021.

The letter, obtained by Global News, raised concerns about how Bains talked to his employees, the financial benefits they felt he received and habits to skirt accountability. It was signed by Cader, along with the directors of people, strategic data intelligence and communications.

The letter alleged Bains had told senior leadership that “gossip is good,” and that he also said, “I want staff to be afraid.” It said Bains had pushed for admirable though unrealistic goals. In one case, the letter claimed he said, “Let’s hold a world summit on child welfare.”

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Global News put the allegations in the letter to Bains.

“Mr. Bains is not able to speak more specifically about (the letter or subsequent investigation),” Alex Van Kralingen, a lawyer representing Bains, said in a statement. “What I can say is that he engaged the process robustly and in good faith.”

An investigation into the CEO

In their 2021 letter about Bains, the Peel CAS senior managers drew out a number of alleged examples.

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In one case, they alleged Bains had led the construction of a gymnasium for Peel CAS and pushed to have an expensive badminton court built, even after senior staff said children were likely to want to play basketball.

“When (the director of finance, property and IT) stated that the primary sport is basketball for the youth, (Bains) stated to the (director) that he had no idea how many individuals play badminton,” the letter said.

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It alleged Bains designed the space himself, resulting in issues with the construction that were quoted at between $60,000 and $80,000 to fix.

According to the letter, Bains had a master key for the gym.

“On several occasions, Mr. Bains has used the gym during the lockdown to bring in friends and family to the gymnasium to play badminton,” the directors wrote.

Bains was placed on administrative leave with full pay in November 2021 and an investigation into the CEO was announced.

It cleared him of serious wrongdoing but did find that he had committed two violations, neither of which would have “warranted his suspension or dismissal” from the job, the board said.

One of the violations the investigation found was that Bains had been using the badminton court during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the letter had alleged.

The other violation referenced by the board was that Bains “used an agency van for personal use” the Peel CAS said in a December 2022 update sent to staff.

“As you know, Peel CAS has publicly confirmed that after a comprehensive review, the workplace investigator found that none of the serious allegations against Mr. Bains could be substantiated,” Van Kralingen wrote on behalf of Bains.

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“The Peel CAS acknowledged a finding of two non-material violations of policies.”

Bains retired the following year at the end of 2022. The board thanked him for his service, hailing his “leadership and commitment to the community over the last 22 years.”

“Mr. Bains’ legacy is one he has a right to be proud of,” part of the board statement said.

Bains was paid $248,017.10 in 2022, the year he was under investigation and on leave, according to government salary records. In 2023, the year after he retired, he was paid $268,791.74.

“Mr. Bains has dedicated his working life to bettering the lives of children in many communities,  including those in Peel Region,” Van Kralingen wrote.

“He has shown remarkable restraint in the face of the scurrilous and defamatory allegations over the last number of years.”

Charges withdrawn

In November 2022, Peel Regional Police announced the arrest of two former Peel CAS employees in a press release.

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Cader and a former property maintenance worker, Andre Paul, were both charged in connection with an alleged purchase and reimbursement scheme.

“The investigation suggests that the pair were working together, and it is alleged that they defrauded the Peel C.A.S. of more than a quarter of a million dollars,” police said in a news release, noting the alleged issue had been flagged after an internal review at Peel CAS.

An internal document prepared for the provincial Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services in late 2022 and obtained by Global News through freedom of information laws said Cader had been the first person to raise financial issues.

“In February 2022, the ministry was made aware by Peel CAS of allegations of financial mismanagement by the society’s Finance Director,” the memo reads.

“The ministry met with the society’s Board Chair to understand the allegations and next steps.”

The criminal charges against Paul were withdrawn in 2023. The Crown dropped the charges against Cader on May 3.

Both the Crown and defence agreed Peel police had been slow to disclose their evidence to either of them, with Cader’s lawyer telling the court the lead officer in the case only had eight pages of notes from his investigation.

Those notes, Cader’s lawyer said, were not disclosed until well into 2024.

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“Just think about it, you investigated apparently a quarter-of-a-million-dollar fraud, as they state, and you come out with eight pages of notes — that alone should speak volumes,” Cader told Global News.

“For me, every time that (a delay) happened, that incurred costs, like, personally. It was one of those things where if I absolutely did not have my family behind me, I wouldn’t make it through.”

Jonathan Shime, who represented Cader in his criminal trial, told Global News it was a “great concern” that police had taken so long to disclose information.

“It resulted in significant days and procedural unfairness to my client, who had to live with the stigma of being charged criminally for almost 18 months. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

A spokesperson for Peel CAS said the organization was “disappointed” the case against Cader did not proceed.

“After lengthy delays, the Crown withdrew the charges citing the inability to prosecute this matter within established Supreme Court timelines,” the statement said.

When they withdrew the charges on May 3, the Crown said there was no reasonable chance of conviction.

Looming civil battle

With criminal charges withdrawn, the battle over who may be responsible for the alleged issues at Peel CAS and how people’s reputations have been impacted will move into civil court.

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Over more than a year, statements of claim from Cader and another from Peel CAS against both Cader and Paul have been traded and exchanged. In 2023, they were consolidated into one claim and counterclaim between Peel CAS and its former employees.

Documents originally filed with a Toronto court by Cader in 2022 seek more than $700,000 for wrongful dismissal, bad faith, punitive damages and defamation damages.

Along with a statement of defence denying Cader’s allegations, Peel filed its own claim against Cader and Paul in 2022. It sought the “return of funds” allegedly taken at around $1.4 million and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Both claims included details of different alleged schemes involving the purchase of gift cards.

In his claim, Cader alleged that Bains had “instructed” staff to buy gift cards using leftover money at the end of each year to avoid returning a surplus to the government at the end of the year. He alleged at least $1.3 million in gift cards were “locked away in a vault” at the agency.

Cader’s claim does not reference what the gift cards were for but in its own court documents, Peel CAS said it keeps “an inventory of approximately $300,000 worth of gift cards on hand to distribute to families and children in need.”

Van Kralingen, on behalf of Bains, said Cader’s allegations were “defamatory” and that he “would be sued” if they were repeated outside of the civil case.

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“Any allegations from him should be viewed with deep skepticism,” he wrote.

Bains is referenced in Cader’s case against Peel CAS but is not a named party in an issue that involves Cader as the plaintiff and Peel CAS as the defendant.

In its claim, Peel CAS presented a different version of events.

The court documents agreed the value of gift cards was around $1.3 million but alleged Cader had bought them himself without instruction and then “blamed” Bains when questioned.

“Cader also involved himself in all aspects of procurement, receiving and signing for the gift card invoices (so that he could falsify them), and receiving the box to inventory the product (so he could remove and take the bonus gift cards as outlined below),” the claim alleged.

Both Cader and Peel CAS have said they are committed to seeing the case through.

“I’ve never, for one minute, swayed from the innocent tactic because I know what’s happened at that organization,” Cader said.

“I wouldn’t bring forward these allegations if I didn’t have evidence to support it. And there’s other individuals as well who will be coming forward to speak to this, I’m not the only one…. All the truth will come out.”

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Peel Children’s Aid said it “remains committed to pursuing all legal avenues,” including the ongoing civil claim.

“Our main objective has always been to ensure that money is returned to the children, youth, and families of Peel Region,” the organization said in a statement.

“Our children deserve nothing less.”

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