Nektarios Panacos is going public about concerns over a lingering spending scandal Local 183’s training centre.
The 41-year-old Mississauga tradesman, a member of the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 183, is going public about concerns over a lingering spending scandal at its regional training centres.
In a break from union brotherhood ranks, Panacos is the lone signatory on an open letter pushing LiUNA to release the findings of what he calls a hidden investigation into alleged improprieties involving the centre’s finances.
“I know I’m sticking my neck out,” said Panacos who fears reprisals from the union that could affect his job. “I’m worried about my family’s financial security, my wife and daughter.
“This isn’t easy but someone has to come forward to try and make sure things are done properly for the members. There appears to be some secrecy here and it could be disturbing.”
Senior Local 183 officials, including president Nelson Melo, who is also chairman of the training centre’s board of trustees, did not respond to questions from the Star.
The centre, a jewel among training operations in North America, teaches construction skills to thousands of workers annually at facilities in Toronto, Vaughan, Barrie and Cobourg.
It has assets of more than $32 million and receives funding from the union, contractors in the building industry and the Ontario government, according to an earlier, 2010 audit by Deloitte & Touche that first raised red flags.
That Deloitte audit, which was not released publicly at the time but obtained by the Star, revealed evidence of unauthorized personal expenses and breaches in contract tendering procedures under training centre administrator John Mandarino over a one-year period in 2008.
Misused credit cards, flawed cheque-writing policies and processing mistakes leading to the loss of valuable government training grants were among the specific findings.
In one case, internal documents obtained by the Star showed Mandarino spent more than $8,600 on a seven-day trip to Florida in February 2008 for an industry convention and stayed at Disney World. That trip included union payment of $4,128 at the resort, almost $1,000 for airline tickets for his young daughter, and another $847.76 to rent a vehicle.
Based on audit and review of internal documents, a legal opinion prepared for the union local and training centre board at the time described “a repeated pattern of obfuscation, deception, blame-shifting and self-dealing.”
Mandarino, who did not respond to interview requests from the Star, was fired shortly after by the training centre’s 24 trustees. He collected $169,950 in salary and another $79,707 in allowances including $9,660 for a car in 2009, union records showed.
At the time, Joe Mancinelli, LiUNA’s top official in Canada, described the controversy surrounding the centre’s administration and Mandarino as a “contrived exaggeration of the facts.”
The next year, Mandarino was re-hired into a $200,000-a-year job by a new Local 183 board that emerged after a bitterly-fought election.
In 2012, he abruptly resigned after the Star disclosed the findings of the first audit and other spending irregularities.
“Given this circumstance, I have made the decision to resign to prevent any further distractions from the excellent work being done at Local 183 and the Local 183 training centre,” Mandarino said at the time in an email to the chairman and vice-chairman of the train centre’s board of trustees.
Despite Mandarino’s erratic employment history with LiUNA, he has remained a director of the union’s Tri-Fund which works on legislative, marketing, training, health and safety issues. He is currently listed as the fund’s executive director, a paid position.
The board initiated a second probe into training centre operations in 2012 to cover a longer period. Members have not received any update even though it has been completed for “quite some time,” Panacos’ letter says.
“We have reason to believe this report and its findings will never see the light of day,” reads the letter which was sent to training centre trustees, top Local 183 officials and Toronto Police.
Panacos says union members have a right to know if there is a second audit report and, if so, what it discovered.
“There should be no harm in releasing the report unless there is something they (trustees) are concerned about or want to hide,” he added in an interview.
Panacos claims several other members planned on signing the letter but backed out, fearing for their jobs and livelihoods.
Local 183, the biggest of its kind on the continent with 40,000 members, has been wracked by internal brass-knuckle politics for years.
For example, the current local executive fired more than 70 local union officials and employees after winning the 2011 election.
Panacos said he suspects local leaders will unfairly depict him as a disgruntled former union staff representative. Local 183 leaders removed him from the position in 2012 after running into disputes with union management.
Mancinelli wrote to the Star last month in response to an ongoing investigation into the union claiming the newspaper is relying on “alleged sources” that were “expelled from LiUNA for unethical activity.”
“Why isn’t the Star writing about their indiscretions,” he wrote.
Panacos says his decision to step forward is based on seeking answers to legitimate questions.
“This is about principle. We want openness and transparency with our dues which is something the Local 183 leadership stressed when they got elected.”
The veteran tradesman currently works as a framer in the residential construction sector in the Toronto area.
The ministry of training, colleges and universities, which provides some public funding for the centre, said the training centre has met government guidelines and contract commitments.
Ministry officials said they have received the Panacos letter but has not asked for a copy of the second report because “the issues are internal to the union.”