Kamloops. Flickr.

Kamloops. Flickr.

Champagne rooms, chai bars: B.C. regional district ex-CAO under fire for ‘excessive’ spending

A look into five years’ worth of Sukh Gill’s TNRD credit card spending

  • Feb. 19, 2021 10:11 a.m.

-Kamloops This Week

A year ago this month, longtime Thompson-Nicola Regional District CAO Sukh Gill suddenly left the organization.

In a single day, on Feb. 14, 2020, the TNRD said Gill was on paid leave, then said he was on vacation, then said he had resigned, then said he had retired.

When the regional district refused to divulge details of his “retirement,” Kamloops This Week (KTW) worked for weeks on obtaining documents that showed Gill left the TNRD with a $500,000-plus payout and that his “retirement” was a term agreed upon in legal documents between himself and the regional district.

More documents obtained by KTW during the past year show spending at the TNRD under Gill was high, with current chair Ken Gillis conceding it was “somewhat distressing” and “excessive.”

From dining at the finest steakhouses to booking an $8,000 champagne room at a high-end hotel in Whistler to buying gifts for staffers, taxpayers of the TNRD, including those in Kamloops, funded it all.

A significant amount of spending of public money occurred at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District prior to the sudden departure of former CAO Sukh Gill, according to multiple sources and years’ worth of financial documents — spending that went unchecked for years on big parties, high-end restaurants, regular coffee shop visits, luxury hotels and expensive gifts.

Over the past year, Kamloops This Week has continued to investigate the unexpected departure of Gill, the regional district’s top staffer, who was suddenly dispatched in February 2020 after two decades with the TNRD.

Gill left with a half-million-dollar payout and a legal agreement to call his dismissal a “retirement.”

KTW has spoken to more than a dozen sources and filed dozens of Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requests in gathering this information.

Spending did not get Gill fired — the reason he was let go remains murky and unexplained officially — but was key to his power at the regional district.

As former finance director, the accountant by trade knew budgets and policies inside-out and wrote some of the TNRD rules himself.

Gill wined and dined staff and managed with a top-down, hands-on style. The finance department reported to him.

Politicians responsible for his employment were presented with balanced budgets, fine dining, luxury hotels and fancy gifts. Creative budgeting split up expenses amongst different line items and utilized “general” accounts. None of it apparently broke policy, though whistleblowers told KTW they felt it was wrong.

Former TNRD CAO Sukh Gill.

KTW obtained five years’ worth of Gill’s TNRD credit card expenses, from 2015 to 2020, including receipts that show $174,000 in that time spent at coffee shops and restaurants using public money — on average, once every other day for five years. A total of $165,000 was expensed at restaurants on more than 522 occasions, or about twice per week, and the majority was expensed outside typical nine-to-five, weekday working hours.

Much of it was spent with TNRD staff, but it also involved TNRD board directors — those ultimately responsible for Gill’s employment.

Board chair Ken Gillis said the board did not know the extent to which spending occurred and called the amounts “surprising” and “somewhat distressing.”

Changes to policy have since been made.

A TNRD corporate policy states credit cards are given to the CAO, directors and managers for travel and business expenses.

Documents obtained by KTW show three-dozen staff credit cards existed at the regional district in May of 2020, with a combined limit of $287,500. Gill’s credit card had a limit of $30,000.

When Randy Diehl became interim CAO in February 2020, his credit card limit was set at $5,000.

The priciest restaurant tab Gill picked up over five years was at the 2018 Union of BC Municipalities convention. On Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, nearly $8,000 was spent at the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, a trendy, high-end restaurant in the village that serves Wagyu beef and is best known for its vodka ice room.

A receipt shows the regional district reserved a champagne room.

“I saw it. I was never in it,” Gillis said of the restaurant’s vodka ice room, which is often featured in photos posted to social media. “I don’t know if anybody from the TNRD group was in it — and I don’t know for sure — but I would hope that if anyone frequented that, that that would have been done on his own nickel, not on the TNRD dime.”

The TNRD hosts UBCM functions independent of the conference, swapping a $100-a-head sanctioned gala dinner in lieu of its own dinner party.

READ MORE: Taxpayer-funded, two-drink maximum gets nod from Thompson-Nicola Regional Board

Other politicians, including area MLAs, are invited and it is seen as an opportunity to network. Past TNRD UBCM events also included: $5,300 at the Cactus Club Coal Harbour in Vancouver in 2015, $4,300 at Chateau Victoria in B.C.’s capital in 2016, $5,100 at The Keg Dunsmuir in Vancouver in 2017 and $4,900 at Al Porto Ristorante in Vancouver in 2019. The 2020 UBCM convention was held remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gillis said that since Gill’s departure, the regional district put in place a policy restricting alcoholic drinks at the function to a maximum of two.

In emails exchanged in June of 2020 between TNRD board directors about that policy, obtained by KTW, Gillis admitted past venues were pricey and wine had flown freely.

He also alluded to Gill’s spending.

“It seems that our UBCM dinner might not be such an extravagance as some of the post-dinner drinks offered by our former CAO to those whom he chose to favour and I believe that that practice, together with similar excesses, will now be things of the past,” Gillis wrote to the board.

KTW found references to alcoholic drinks purchased among Gill’s expenses.

However, next to no restaurant receipts submitted were itemized and instead only included totals.

Gillis admitted alcohol was purchased at the Bearfoot Bistro event: “Yes, there would have been wine and so forth served at that meal and probably after-dinner drinks. I don’t know if there were cocktails ahead of time that were picked up by Mr. Gill or not. I can’t remember.”

Some liquor store receipts were produced, including a $125 liquor store purchase in Revelstoke in April of 2018 for Gill, Gillis, Ken Christian, Randy Murray, John Ranta, Herb Graham, Steven Rice, William Kershaw and Carolyn Black.

In Kamloops, $24,000 was spent on Gill’s TNRD credit card over five years at Nandi’s Flavours of India and Goldie’s Flavours of India and $22,000 was spent at the high-end Terra Restaurant, which has since closed its storefront eatery.

In 2018, the regional district spent $3,300 on a board orientation and also hosted a catered-by-Terra dinner at Monte Creek Ranch Winery for 24 of its staff and board directors.

The guest list included Gill, Gillis, Ken Christian, Carolyn Black, Herb Graham, John Ranta, Rick Berrigan, Peter Hughes, Jack Jeyes, Tina Lange, Jessoa Lightfoot, Willow MacDonald, Randy Murray, Doug Rae, Al Raine, Steven Rice, Mel Rothenburger, Regina Sadilkova, Arjun Singh, Robin Smith, Marg Spina, Ron Storie, Sally Watson and Vicci Weller.

TNRD board chair Ken Gillis said the board did not know the extent to which spending occurred and called the amounts “surprising” and “somewhat distressing.”

The events are examples of spending at the regional district, charged to Gill’s TNRD credit card, but enjoyed by staff, board directors and some of their family members.

Gill wrote on the back of his credit card receipts the names of those upon whom he spent taxpayer money.

A database of those receipts created by KTW — which has been made available to the public by clicking here — provides a peek behind the curtain of bureaucracy in Kamloops and shows Gill also ate and drank with representatives from the City of Kamloops, Interior Health, Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Forests, Telus, Trans Mountain, Kamloops RCMP, Kamloops Fire Rescue, Kamloops-Thompson school district, Kamloops and District Real Estate Association, Kamloops Central Business Improvement Association, Thompson Rivers University, MLAs, CAOs from other regional districts, staff and politicians in rural communities throughout the region, lawyers, insurers, accountants, realtors and developers.

The list of restaurants at which Gill regularly incurred expenses includes high-end eateries, such as The Keg, Cactus Club, Mittz Kitchen, Brownstone, Earls, Commodore, Cordo, Accolades, Romeos Kitchen and Spirits and Atlas Steak+Fish.

During the Federation of Canadian Municipalities convention in Edmonton in 2015, TNRD directors Gillis, Sally Watson and Neil Menard dined with Gill at a steakhouse frequented by NHL players, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, known to be among the finest on the continent. The dinner bill was $450, averaging more than $110 per meal.

Meanwhile, Gill’s credit card had one single expense at McDonald’s in five years.

Tips added up, with more than $10,000 spent on gratuities among the expenses analyzed by KTW.

Gill also appeared to have liked dining at the hotel across the street from the regional district office downtown, with $10,000 spent at the Delta Kamloops (formerly Hotel 540) on 73 occasions over five years. On Thursday, March 10, 2016, TNRD staff members and directors went for lunch at Hotel 540.

Later that night, a $1,300 tab was cashed out at 9:17 p.m. at the Brownstone Restaurant four blocks away, with only “Charge: Meals board general,” written on the receipt.

Gill frequented local coffee shops, which is where he would often meet community leaders during the work day. Gill met City of Kamloops CAO David Trawin regularly, usually expensing about $10, considerably lower than Gill’s other expenses.

Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian was tied to restaurant and coffee shop tabs totalling $11,500 over five years.

(Being “tied” to expenses does not necessarily mean that whole amount was spent on that person, but may have included others.)

Former Kamloops mayor Peter Milobar was tied to bills worth $4,400.

Trips by Milobar and Gill to Kelowna to meet Interior Health officials often included a meal at The Keg. On one April night in 2015, Robert Harpens, Erwin Malzer, Milobar and Gill dined, with the bill at $525.

Overall, in five years’ worth of Gill’s expenses, about $9,000 worth of coffee shop expenses were charged to his TNRD credit card.

One Friday morning, Gill, two TNRD staff members and a board director went to the Valleyview Starbucks and ordered a venti Americano, venti latte, venti soy latte and venti chai tea latte. It cost about $20.

About two hours later, the same foursome expensed another $20 on chocolate chip cookies, dark chocolate peanut butter cups and almond chai bars.

Board members and area politicians also routinely received Purdy’s chocolates from the regional district at Christmas time. Gill’s credit card statements and receipts showed $3,000 spent at chocolate shops in five years. In addition, Gill expensed $27,500 on Christmas parties.

In an interview before his departure in August 2020, interim TNRD CAO Randy Diehl said throughout his long career in government, different CAOs held different views and philosophies on spending.

He noted TNRD expenses were put on Gill’s credit card, with many of the expenditures made by Gill or Gill’s assistants on behalf of directors or for the regional district. For example, hotel rooms — the majority, if not all, of which were luxury hotels — for staff and directors were charged to Gill’s credit card.

Both Gillis and Diehl said the spending did not violate TNRD policy.

Gillis conceded some of the expenses were “extravagant,” but added nothing that would “constitute impropriety.” Asked what policy would have allowed Gill to spend taxpayer money on restaurants and coffee shops, Diehl said there was an “absence of policy.”

Diehl said Gill encouraged his team to take people and clients out for lunch or dinner, noting the regional district has good relationships. He said spending on restaurants and coffee shops at the TNRD pre-dated Gill’s tenure.

However, Diehl said the degree to which it occurred was a matter of choice by the former CAO.

Diehl also distanced himself from such expenditures, telling KTW he stayed in modest accommodations during conferences and otherwise when he worked for the City of Kamloops, which included a stint as CAO.

Gillis said Gill did not leave the regional district because of the spending and that the regional district did not find anything that would have been actionable had the spending been discovered before Gill left.

The regional district will not comment on the reasons why Gill is no longer CAO.

Though Gillis maintains the board was not aware of the extent of Gill’s spending, board directors’ names were among those listed on the back of Gill’s receipts.

Gillis — who became TNRD board chair in 2018 — is tied to $17,000 worth of Gill’s restaurant and coffee shop expenses over the five years, while former chair John Ranta is tied to $6,900 before he failed to secure re-election in 2018.

Vice-chairs also partook. Willow MacDonald, 2015 vice-chair, was tied to $12,400 of Gill’s coffee shop and restaurant expenses, followed by 2016 vice-chair Ronaye Elliott ($9,100), 2017 vice-chair Steven Rice ($11,900) and current vice-chair William Kershaw ($12,300).

Asked if the board turned a blind eye, Gillis said: “I don’t think that would be accurate to say. A lot of this never became evident to the board before the expenses were put under scrutiny. I think you would have seen objection, substantial objection, from a number of board members, but it’s kind of an incremental thing.

“OK, so you go and spend money on a UBCM dinner and you don’t think that much of it, and then it’s three or four months later there may be another event and, you know, nobody’s doing a tally, really, and I think our director of finance is keeping much closer tabs on it now and I know for a fact that our new CAO is keeping very close tabs on that kind of expenditures.”

The spending would have gone through not only the board, but also the TNRD’s finance department and auditors. Gillis said the finance department worked beneath and reported to Gill as CAO.

One new check and balance brought in by Diehl was to have the CAO’s expenses signed off by the chair and vice-chair.

A request for comment from KPMG, which audits the TNRD’s financial statements, was declined.

Other policy changes include staff can no longer expense alcohol and are required to provide itemized receipts.

Kamloops This Week reached out to Sukh Gill for comment. He has not returned this newspaper’s calls.

READ MORE: Two die in Highway 1 crash near Kamloops

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