Where on Earth is Appian Way Group?

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By Sierra Bein

Current and former Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) employees and board members have called into question the legitimacy of Appian Way Group, the auditing firm that was hired to conduct the RSU efficiency audit in 2015 that led to the layoff of Gilary Massa.

An Eyeopener investigation found a connection between Appian Way Group and a provincial student lobbying organization. There is also no solid documentation regarding the firm, no active website and no contact information is available. The quality of the audit itself is also being questioned.

Massa was the RSU’s executive director of communications and outreach for seven years. On Dec. 1, 2015, she received a call from then RSU president Andrea Bartlett telling her she no longer had a job. Dina Skvirsky—who was covering Massa’s maternity leave at the time— was also let go, but later given a new role as executive director of operations & services. That position was also quietly dissolved and soon after, the RSU brought in a non-unionized general manager (GM) position. Accusations surfaced about friendships playing a role in the hiring.

When the Transform slate, led by Bartlett, won the RSU election, it was a pivotal moment in student politics at the university. But since Massa was let go, a total of 13 current and former RSU board members and employees spoke to The Eye about their concerns with Appian Way Group. Bartlett, however, says the RSU was operating under the assumption that Appian Way Group was properly qualified to perform the audit.

Board left in the dark

According to multiple documents obtained by The Eye—including an invoice, a cheque requisition and a cheque stub—the RSU paid Appian Way Group $3,955 for “consulting, final report and summary—as per agreement.”

Since the RSU executive committee can approve up to $5,000 in expenditures without consulting the board, according to their by-laws, the budget for the audit was approved at an executive-only meeting. Minutes are not publicly available for executive meetings.

The audit was presented to the board, but members were never consulted on getting rid of positions. Some board members said they should have been involved with how the audit recommendations were implemented.

“I could have said from day one that firing a minority person on maternity leave is not good politics, is not good press,” said Noah Parker, former Board of Directors member.

Obaid Ullah, current RSU president and last year’s vice-president operations, said it’s the board’s job to make sure that the RSU functions properly as an organization. “The execs understand it better, the execs are in the office day to day, they’re officers of the organization. They see it better.”

The quality of the audit

In 2009, Deloitte—a different and well-established firm—performed two internal audits for the RSU: one for the Health and Dental plan and another regarding elections. Former Student Campus Centre general manager Michael Verticchio, an employee of the RSU for 10 years who had been present for the 2009 audit, said the process for the most recent one was conducted differently.

“We worked with the auditors to come up with a report and there was a lot of consultation with the staff,” Verticchio said regarding the ‘09 audit. “It was probably dozens of pages long and it had a lot of good work going through it. That report itself had the firm’s address on it, and it was a reputable company that people had heard of before.”

Comparatively, Appian Way Group did not perform interviews with RSU employees or board members.

“They didn’t have face-to-face interaction directly with the staff because I didn’t want that to create any sort of bias in their findings,” said Bartlett. “Ultimately, I was more concerned with the trends and not making this an individual-focused audit.”

However, Ryerson auditing expert Richard Deklerk said it’s common to begin the audit- ing process with interviews and verification. “It’s pretty hard to do an internal audit without questioning the people involved,” he said. “The staff is the most knowledgeable … They’d at least need to speak to both of those staff at least once beyond looking at job descriptions.”

Two board members who saw the full report said it was not to the standards that they were expecting. Dahab Ibrahim, a current Board of Directors member, said the audit couldn’t be emailed to them—a common standard for personnel audits—and could only be read in an executives’ office. “It didn’t seem up to code as you would have expected a professional report to be.”

Anna Stevenson, current board member, said there were no citations for the statistics, numbers, budget materials or pros and cons of amalgamating a position. “There were spelling mistakes throughout the report, there were grammatical and sentence structure errors,” Stevenson added.

The Eye has not seen a copy of the full audit. 

The auditor’s credentials

Scott Courtice and Jeff Armour are the partners registered on Appian Way’s business registry form. Courtice is currently listed as the senior manager government services at Western University’s Student Council (USC). Before he worked at the USC in 2007, he spent two years at Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA)—a provincial lobbying group that has a strong presence at Western—as their executive director. Armour is listed as the chief operating officer at the USC under full time support staff and has also worked at Western since 2007, according to his LinkedIn page.

Neither Courtice nor Armour mention Appian Way Group in their work history online, despite their detailed accounts of other experience. The Eye reached out to Courtice several times for comment, but he did not respond prior to publication. Armour did respond, but said he was not allowed to discuss his work with the RSU. When asked to comment about his company, he declined.

After reviewing both owners’ resumes, Deklerk said their qualifications did not align with the work they did for the RSU. Courtice graduated from Queen’s with a History, Politics and Economics BA and a not-for-profit management professional certificate from Western. Armour has a Genetics BSc and a  project management certificate from Western. “Usually the credentials you would need would be some sort of internal audit history,” Deklerk said. “He’s (Courtice) got a post certificate in not-for-profit management. I’ll give him that, does that make him an auditor? I don’t think so … He’s not a certified management consultant. He’s not an internal auditor.

He’s not an accountant of anything.”

The company’s origin

Documents given to The Eye indicated that Appian Way Group’s name was officially registered on Nov. 10, 2015. However, under Ontario’s Business Names Act, “No corporation shall carry on business or identify itself to the public under a name other than its corporate name unless the name is registered by that corporation.”

This means Appian Way Group should not have operated under the company name until they were registered in November—after the initial audit was performed.

Board members have also questioned the independence of the audit because of Appian Way’s links to Western University and Courtice’s former ties with OUSA. When Trans- form took office, the RSU’s relationship with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)—a national and provincial lobbying group the RSU pays an annual membership fee of about $500,000 to—became a source of contention. More recently, conversations about the possibility of defederating from the CFS have surfaced, with OUSA and its national counterpart CASA being cited as alternatives to join.

“When you’re hiring consultants to do an independent, non-biased sort of an assessment, then you’d want to make sure that there aren’t any conflicts, or at least perceived conflicts, to make sure you’re getting the best information possible,” Verticchio said.

According to Bartlett, the reason she chose Appian Way Group was because the company seemed to specialize in “a student political environment.” Their experience with OUSA and other student unions, she said, made them a perfect match for the purpose of the audit.

Bartlett said she didn’t work with Courtice, only Armour. She added that she didn’t think it would be a conflict of interest because the group was able to provide “management insight.”

“The person who did the consulting report had management experience in that atmosphere,” Bartlett said.

The disappearance of Appian Way

Using online domain search tools, The Eye found that Appian Way’s website, appianwaygroup.ca, was created on May 22, 2015—just two months before the company began their work on the RSU’s internal au- dit and only a short time after the Transform executive took office. The website is no longer online and while an Appian Way Group LinkedIn page does exist, it does not contain any information.

When Verticchio first heard about the audit, he tried to look up the company, but couldn’t find a website, address or phone number. “It’s still a mystery that even if I wanted to use them right now, there’s no way for me to contact them.”

While the Appian Way Group domain has been empty since at least mid-February 2016, it does still have an owner who we were not able to identify.

According to Daniel Tobok from Cytelligence, a cybersecurity and digital forensic company, this means that “they’ve obviously pulled their website … It’s suspicious, absolutely, especially if it’s a live company. But who knows, maybe they went under,” he said.

Another expert, Ryan Duquette, who works at Hexigent Consulting, a digital investigation and cybersecurity company, shared a similar opinion. “It seems a little odd that if they were a business that was up and running, that you wouldn’t be able to find anything on them.”

THE RSU GOING FORWARD

As the academic year comes to a close, incoming executives will be taking on a $1-million deficit and clashing opinions within the executive team about the CFS. The topic of Massa and the RSU’s structure is still being addressed.

“I do truly believe that this position is one that takes time in order to see substantial change,” said Bartlett. “If you look at basic employment relationships in a unionized environment it’s a very intricate one.”

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