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Toronto Star May 10 2000, - by Tony Van Alphen, Business Writer

Former ORC manager linked to firm in suit
Latest revelations in controversy around real estate agency

A former manager of the Ontario government's real estate arm had close ties to companies now at the centre of bid-rigging and fraud allegations rocking the same provincial agency.

Rick Benson left Ontario Realty Corp. in 1995 and subsequently played a key role in two consulting firms connected to Sirman Associates Ltd., the company embroiled in allegations relating to government contracts.

The relationship reached the point where Benson ``shared'' in profits with Sirman Associates, according to a former company administrator.

A recent agency lawsuit in the Superior Court of Justice names Benson's related companies, but not Benson himself, among 23 defendants in sweeping allegations of bid rigging, fraudulent invoicing and kickbacks.

The agency, which manages the province's real estate holdings, filed exhibits in court outlining three cases where it alleges Sirman Associates actually bid under the names of two Benson firms - Environmental and Development Solutions Ltd. and Integrated Property Solutions Inc. - rather than its own.

That made the process unfair because of multiple links between individuals at Oshawa-based Sirman and the Benson firms, one investigator said in an affidavit filed in court.

``In essence, this is allowing the Sirman companies and its principal an unfair advantage on environmental work for the ORC (Ontario Realty Corp.),'' Craig Malcolm, an investigator working for the agency, said in an affidavit.

``I believe the scheme employed by Sirman Associates Ltd. prevented the competitive process essential for fairness to occur. The scheme could only be successfully carried out with collusion by ORC employees.''

The agency's allegations have not been proven in court.

Benson, who lives in the Simcoe area, did not return calls to The Star yesterday and Monday.

The widening controversy over the sale of numerous pieces of public real estate has caused an uproar in the Legislature and problems for the ruling Conservatives. Auditors working for the agency and the Ontario Provincial Police are continuing their investigation into suspicious environmental clean-up contracts and land deals where buyers flipped properties for huge profits in recent years.

Cynthia Stiles, a former Sirman administrator, alleged in a statement to investigators that two government employees, Ross Farewell and Kent Banting, collected payments from Ivan Sirman, the head of Sirman Associates. Stiles also checked off 1998-99 contracts under which she believed the two Ontario Realty employees - and Benson - received money. The amounts for each individual are not identified on the contract schedules.

``I have indicated Ross (Farewell) /Kent (Banting) as receiving profits, also Rick Benson on the schedule,'' she said in her statement filed in court.

Stiles also told investigators that Sirman was involved in bid rigging with Ontario Realty employees.

Benson joined the government in October, 1991, and left in July, 1995. He was Ontario Realty's manager of development and environment in its real estate services branch for the Toronto area in 1994 and 1995.

Benson worked in the same real estate services branch as Vince Catalfo, a third former government employee along with Banting and Farewell that the agency has named as defendants in its claim. Catalfo was manager of institutional and environmental services for Ontario Realty when he ``retired'' last fall, the agency said.

Government records show Benson became the principal and director of Environmental and Development Solutions in late 1996. The firm's mailing address is Benson's home in Simcoe.

He is also a director of Hamilton-based Integrated Property, which was set up a few months earlier.

Sirman, the principal of Sirman Associates and a defendant in the government's claim, is also a director of Integrated.

In a court application for a search-and-seizure order of several homes and businesses last month, forensic auditors referred to the two Benson firms in a list of ``The Sirman Companies.''

The agency alleges in its claim that Sirman Associates played a critical role in three incidents of fraudulent bidding for consulting and clean-up contracts. In each case, the same person or parties created all the bids for the contract, the agency noted in its claim.

Among the connections to the Benson firms, court exhibits revealed that the signature of Bob Allan, a Sirman employee, appears on an Integrated Property bid. Allan is also an Integrated director with Sirman and Benson.

Sirman has declined comment about the controversy and allegations swirling around his firm on the advice of his lawyer. Farewell and Banting, who left the agency in 1998 and 1999 respectively, have not returned calls.

Yesterday, in the Legislature, Premier Mike Harris defended his government against allegations from Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty that the Tories reward financial contributors to the party with ``sweetheart'' land deals.


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