Months after the Lester B. Pearson School Board fired the head of its international service in 2016, Quebec’s anti-corruption unit was called in to investigate alleged wrongdoing.
Dubbed “Project Pandora”, the investigation focused on allegations of fraud, forged documents and abuse of power within the department as it grew rapidly.
Between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016, the department grew from seven students to 777, bringing in millions of dollars in tuition for the English school board in the Montreal area.
Court documents obtained by CBC News shed light on the investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of Caroline Mastantuono, the former head of the department, her daughter Christina Mastantunono, who also worked at the department, and Naveen Kolan , a Toronto-based consultant with Edu Edge Inc. (EEI).
The school board and Edu Edge had an agreement in place at the time to attract adult international students for vocational school.
The three individuals were loaded in November 2020but details of the allegations against them – and their alleged impact on the English-language school board serving 20,000 students in the Montreal area – have been scarce so far.
All three face charges of fraud against the school board and the province’s immigration department, as well as forging and using false documents, for acts allegedly committed between 2014 and 2016.
The trial is scheduled for January 2023.
The court documents contain what is called a “memorandum of hearing”, which describes the prosecution’s case. The list of potential witnesses includes a forensic accountant, a signature specialist, former and current school board staff and several dozen students.
The allegations were not proven in court and all three defendants pleaded not guilty.
In a statement on behalf of his client Christina Mastantuono and the other two defendants, attorney Jonathan Gordon declined to comment on specifics, but said the trial brief “contains unproven allegations that our clients have not had the opportunity to respond during the legal proceedings.
According to the trial brief, in the spring of 2014, Christina Mastantuono told her mother that the province’s immigration department would not grant certain international students the Quebec Acceptance Certificate (CAQ), a document of compulsory immigration, because the students did not have the necessary funds. to cover their tuition fees.
The prosecution explains how Caroline Mastantuono, along with Kolan, told school board staff that they would create fake tuition receipts for Indian students to make it look like they had paid in full.
The false documents, described as “false receipts”, would have allowed the students to obtain their CAQ. They also allowed Kolan’s firm, EEI, to charge the school board a recruiting fee.
Christina Mastantuono, along with two other staff members, were at one point responsible for the false documents, according to the trial brief.
Later, it is alleged that only Christina signed the documents, as “Caroline Mastantuono did not want the employees to be blamed for these acts”.
In total, the lawsuit alleges there were 81 false payment receipts, with the overall potential loss to the school board estimated at $1.5 million.
A second scheme alleged by the suit concerns the embezzlement of funds intended for the board of directors of Lester B. Pearson.
The school board kept records of international students who applied to its programs through a recruiting agency and those who applied themselves.
He did not have to pay commission for self-applied students.
According to the trial brief, two staff members of the International Department discovered that unagented students had been assigned to a BC-based numbered company registered in the name of Naveen Kolan’s wife, Suneetha Yanala.
Christina Mastantuono reportedly told staff that it was done to “compensate Naveen Kolan for money allegedly owed to him” by the school board.
However, no agreement has been signed between the board and the BC recruiting firm.
Caroline Mastantuono signed on behalf of the school board and Kolan signed on behalf of the BC society, according to the trial brief.
Those contracts were “untraceable” by the school board, according to the documents.
Forensic analysis shows that four school board checks totaling $119,000 were sent to the numbered company.
The school board files a complaint
Lester B. Pearson School Board officials declined to comment on the contents of the minutes, saying the matter is now before the courts.
The school board sued Edu Edge in 2016 to recover lost revenue. In response, the company countered that it was actually the one that owed $5.5 million.
In 2019, accounting firm Ernst & Young was hired to help make sense of the financial dispute, but the case remains unresolved.
The same summer the accounting firm was appointed, Quebec’s Ministry of Higher Education granted the Mastantuonos a license to operate M College, a private institution for international students, even though the criminal investigation was underway and that a provincial audit had revealed a litany of “irregularities” with the school board’s international service.
The Mastantuonos then acquired colleges CDE and CCSQ in the spring of 2020, just months before Caroline and Christina were charged with fraud for alleged financial improprieties while working on the Pearson board.
All three colleges filed for creditor protection earlier this year.
Colleges have blamed their financial troubles on the COVID-19 pandemic, untimely expansion and changes to the immigration process for international students, which has led to lengthy visa delays.
They were sold last month, which could allow many students to resume their studies, but hundreds more are still asking for refunds.