Brampton ‘whistleblower’ clinic that caters to transgender & marginalized patients alleges Provincial closure order aims to cover-up past corruption
Brampton’s Wise Elephant Family Health Team will not have to close its doors by the end of the month, as ordered by the Ministry of Health in a shocking letter that left patients, doctors and the clinic’s board reeling.
Now, court documents filed by the clinic to save it from permanent closure, allege the Province is trying to cover-up millions of dollars in fraudulent expenditures by the previous clinic directors by ordering Wise Elephant’s termination.
“The WEFHT (Wise Elephant Family Health Team) submits that the Decision is an unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and draconian exercise (and abuse) of the Minister’s authority, power and/or discretion, which was not exercised in good faith. The WEFHT submits that the MOH, in making the Decision, sought to silence the WEFHT as a whistleblower, cover up the prima facie fraud and misappropriation of $3.2 Million in taxpayer funds, and quell any investigation into the wrongdoing of Goel and Banerjee et al., including whether MOH staff were complicit and the extent of their complicity,” the current board alleges in its application for a judicial review to stop the clinic’s closure.
Dr. Sanjeev Goel and Dr. Lopita Banerjee were members of the previous physician-led board that governed the clinic. They deny all the allegations that have been levelled against them in a legal battle that started four years ago, before they left, and the previous board was replaced.
Two lawsuits, including from a former doctor, have centred on the Brampton medical clinic.
The clinic, located just north of the city centre, caters to the city’s transgender residents and many marginalized patients who have difficulty finding a family physician. There are currently about 150 transgender patients at the clinic which has developed a comprehensive program that supports specific surgical procedures and hormone treatments, with trained staff who have gained the trust of their patients.
Many of them have stated publicly they do not know what they will do if Wise Elephant is forced by the Province to close.
The order from the Ministry of Health in December came after the current board of the clinic initiated a lawsuit alleging millions of dollars of public funds meant for healthcare were fraudulently misappropriated by the previous directors, while the Province failed to provide adequate oversight.
The letter in December ordering the clinic to shutdown by March 31, stated: “Subject to the terms and conditions herein, either Party may terminate this Agreement at any time without liability, cost or penalty, and without cause for any reason, upon giving at least 90 days written notice of its intention to do so.”
The clinic applied to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Divisional Court, seeking a judicial review of the Province’s order, to avoid the forced closure. The court has granted the clinic a hearing, meaning it will not have to close its doors, for now.
“On March 8th, Justice [David] Corbett made a fair direction by allowing the WEFHT to continue with its Judicial Review Application, paving the way for the WEFHT to have its day in court,” Ernesto Gaskin, Executive Director of the Wise Elephant Clinic, wrote in a statement to The Pointer. “Moving the judicial review court proceeding from mid July to April 28th is allowing our clinic to continue to provide much needed healthcare beyond the Ministry of Health ordered closure date of March 31st. We have hundreds of patients who have no family physician of record, in particular our transgender patients, and homeless and transient populations, who rely on our clinic services and for whom we are their primary healthcare provider.”
The Ministry has informed the clinic that, pending the decision of the court, the clinic can stay open until April 30, unless Wise Elephant wins its case to quash the provincial order.
When the letter arrived from the ministry in December it was a huge blow for some 11,000 patients at the clinic, many of whom are scrambling to figure out where they can get frontline healthcare if the facility is closed, as Brampton continues to suffer some of the longest wait-times for frontline medical care in Ontario. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the city particularly hard, compounding an already inequitable healthcare situation, which would only be exacerbated for patients who rely on the Wise Elephant Clinic.
The legal documents filed as part of the judicial review raise questions about the Province’s motives for suddenly trying to shut the clinic down, after the current board filed a lawsuit against some of the previous directors.
Following an initial forensic financial audit in 2019, the current administration alleges millions of dollars in financial irregularities by its predecessors were exposed.
The statement of claim, which has not been tested in court, alleges the previous physician-led board, including Dr. Goel and Dr. Banerjee specifically, were behind fraudulent transactions. The statement of claim alleges a conspiracy that purportedly led to the misappropriation of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money meant for patient care.
“We have never had the chance to speak with the auditor, despite repeated attempts,” Goel told The Pointer last year, adding the Province required a detailed, third-party audit to be completed annually. “We dispute everything in that audit, there is no fraud that’s occurred.”
Goel stated neither he nor Dr. Banerjee are guilty of any of the allegations in the lawsuit and they deny any wrongdoing.
In the latest court documents for the judicial review, Wise Elephant alleges that the forensic audit by P. Macaulay & Associates Inc. found: Over $3.2 Million paid by Wise Elephant to or for the benefit of entities owned or controlled by Goel and/or Banerjee (“Goel Banerjee Entities”). These transfers were not allowed under the clinic's funding agreement with the Province, according to the legal filings.
This amount, according to the allegations by the current clinic board, in their filings to the court for the judicial review, includes: $2,255,132 paid previously by Wise Elephant directly to “Goel Banerjee Entities”; $705,000 paid by Wise Elephant to non-Wise Elephant employees of Goel and Banerjee including Goel’s brother, Neeraj; and $256,675 in transactions from PayPal to Dancing Tiger Health Group Inc. (a Goel Banerjee Entity) that flowed through WEFHT accounts.
In the lawsuit filed by Wise Elephant, the new directors are seeking $3 million in damages from Goel and Banerjee and others named in the suit, for breach of contract, and $3 million in restitution for unjust enrichment in order to keep the doors of the Wise Elephant clinic open, so badly needed care can be delivered to Brampton residents.
An old election ad for Dr. Sanjeev Goel
Financial records in the case show: On March 31, 2012, $77,275 was sent to Banerjee Goel Medicine in six separate invoices for different consulting and recruitment purposes (few other details are provided); In April 2012, $9,040 was paid to Clever Monkey for rent; In August 2012, $100,000 was loaned from the WEFHT to Banerjee Goel Medicine. The forensic audit discovered several other related-party loans as well.
The transactions continued between 2013 and 2017 with varying values and reasons, all of them in violation of the funding agreement with the Province, the forensic audit found, according to allegations in the lawsuit.
Between March 29 and April 3, 2013, $174,576 was paid in 24 separate transactions to Banerjee Goel Medicine from the WEFHT for a variety of consulting and rental payments, including a total of $114,119 for “specialist consulting.”
The list goes on: $5,000 was sent to a Neeraj Goel, an “accredited family mediator”.
On April 7, 2014, $25,000 was paid to Clever Monkey for unspecified reasons, according to documents. The memo line of the cheque simply reads “repayment”.
Additionally, Wise Elephant was paying $8,750 a month to I6 Building Corp for 3,000 square feet of space at 2 Kennedy Road in Brampton. The tenant was Sanjeev Goel, according to the documents for the case.
“The Defendant Goel Physicians either together or in concert entered into or conspired to commit these improper and improvident transactions and permitted the occurrence of these financial irregularities with respect to the (Wise Elephant Family Health Team) WEFHT, including a series of related party transactions to substantial detriment of the WEFHT and causing the WEFHT to suffer damages,” the statement of claim reads.
The preliminary findings of the board’s audit were sent off to various ministries at the province and Premier Doug Ford.
These were not the first instances when questions were raised about the previous management of the Wise Elephant team.
In June of 2017, Dr. Andrew Johnson, one of the members of the team, contacted the Ministry of Health raising a number of concerns about financial discrepancies he had noticed within the WEFHT, including the previous month when the overall family health group was unable to make its payroll contributions, allegedly forcing the former executive director to take out a loan from one of the pharmacists in the broader group. A similar shortfall occurred the month after, Johnson alleged, and the clinic group attempted to take out a loan from CIBC to pay its members, but was turned down when the bank realized the bylaws stated the clinic was not authorized to take out loans.
The inability to pay staff was allegedly occurring while Goel and Banerjee were re-directing funds to their affiliated companies, in violation of funding rules, according to allegations in a lawsuit that was filed by Dr. Johnson.
The complaints from Johnson led to an Ontario Treasury Board audit, the results of which were released in February of 2018, detailing an organization that was severely mismanaged.
“It is evident that management and governance issues in the organization are impacting its ability to discharge its accountability obligations as per the funding agreement,” the province’s audit reads.
The initial forensic audit by P. Macaulay & Associates, completed in July 2019, was shared by Wise Elephant’s current board with the Ministry of Health and the Peel Regional Police. The current clinic directors were under the impression law enforcement and government would take action.
However, documents filed as part of the current judicial review process to possibly keep the clinic open, raise a number of questions about the conduct of health ministry staff, the same staff that were responsible for providing oversight of the clinic when the previous directors ran the organization.
In a sworn affidavit by Darlene Wong on February 22, 2021, for the judicial review, the “Senior Manager” in the ministry’s primary care branch, testifies that: “There is no truth to the Corporation’s allegation that the Ministry is attempting to silence the Corporation’s ‘whistleblowing’ by ending the Contract. The Corporation has and can continue to report whatever wrongs they believe have occurred.”
It's unclear how this could happen if the clinic is completely shut down.
Her sworn evidence fails to address a number of issues, primarily why the ministry took no action against the previous board when it knew that at least $350,000 in funds were not spent in accordance with the funding agreement. The ministry failed to hold the previous board accountable for the mismanagement but is now blaming the current directors for the problems, the current board alleges.
Wong raises a number of minor issues with the management of the current board in her affidavit but fails to address the alarming mismanagement under the previous one.
“It did not submit the Corporation’s Recruitment and Retention Report due December 31, 2020; and It did not submit its quarterly report due January 31, 2021,” she states, without mentioning the clinic was desperately trying to keep its doors open after getting the alarming closure letter on December 14 from Wong’s colleagues.
Her sworn statement is filled with inconsistencies. Wong notes that $358,247 was still owed back to the Province because it had not been properly used by the clinic between 2016 and 2018, by the previous board, but when the new directors expressed concern over how these amounts had been misused, instead of a ministry investigation, Wong states it was communicated to the new board that the “Ministry advised that ‘it is within the [Corporation’s] purview to organize and fund this audit for itself’.”
When the current board sought the help of the Ontario Provincial Police, it appears the ministry not only failed to cooperate, it misrepresented its actions.
The Ministry said it informed Peel Regional Police in November of 2019 that it had referred the matter of the alleged fraud by the previous Wise Elephant board to the OPP’s Health Fraud Investigations Unit.
In its judicial review submissions to the court the current board alleges that despite “sufficient and appropriate evidence and support to reach the conclusion of a very high likelihood of prima facie fraud and misappropriation of funds, particularly regarding embezzlement, payroll fraud, and money laundering,” Ministry of Health staff have not followed up on their commitment to spark an OPP investigation.
Wong, in her affidavit, denies this.
“The Ministry does not agree with a number of the conclusions reached in the Preliminary Audit. However, and contrary to the Corporation’s claims, the Ministry did report the matter to the OPP.”
In Wise Elephant’s submission to the court, an email from the OPP to its lawyer is included.
Detective Ted Schendera, Commander of the OPP’s Health Fraud Investigations Unit, wrote on December 15, “Due to not receiving a referral regarding suspicion of offences from the Ministry of Health, the OPP is unable to commence an investigation.”
Email: [email protected]
COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you.
Submit a correction about this story