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The Ontario Provincial Police has hired auditing firm KPMG to investigate the allegations.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

A criminal fraud investigation has been launched into an Ontario COVID-19 relief program designed to help families with young kids and children with special needs.

The Ontario Provincial Police said Thursday its anti-rackets branch is investigating allegations of fraud that the government referred to the police force. The province has also contracted outside auditing firm KPMG to investigate the allegations.

OPP Sergeant Kerry Schmidt said the force is conducting a “large-scale” investigation into the allegations and the probe is still in its “early stages.”

“The OPP has received a referral from the Ministry of Education,” Sgt. Schmidt said in an e-mail. “As the investigation is ongoing, we will not comment further to protect the integrity of the investigation. As this is a criminal investigation, we will not speculate as to the likelihood of charges.”

The police would not confirm which government program the allegations are related to. A government source said it is connected to the Support for Families program, which launched in April. That initiative gave parents a one-time payment of $200 per child under the age of 12 and $250 per child with special needs under the age of 21. The money was intended to help cover extra schooling costs brought on by the pandemic.

The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

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The province budgeted $378-million for the program, which parents could apply to between April and August. To receive the cash, parents were required to provide information about themselves and their children and attest to the accuracy and truth of the information. Parents could then choose to be paid through e-transfer, direct deposit or cheque.

In its response to The Globe’s questions, the government did not disclose the scale of the alleged fraud, nor who was implicated. The government also did not disclose how much of the $378-million that was budgeted was actually spent.

As the pandemic hit Ontario in March, the province shuttered schools and students were forced to complete their course-work from home. Governments were under immense pressure to get direct support to individuals and this program was part of Ontario’s response. It was supposed to help parents “offset the cost of buying materials to support their children’s learning while they practised self-isolation and physical distancing.”

In last week’s budget the province said it would provide another round of payments of $200 and $250 per child and young person with special needs. The government also rebranded the program in the budget, calling it the Support for Learners initiative and giving it a $380-million budget.

The Ministry of Education declined to answer questions about the investigations and referred The Globe to the Attorney-General’s office.

“Any abuse of taxpayers dollars is totally unacceptable. The government takes these allegations seriously and has retained KPMG to conduct a thorough investigation and has filed a formal complaint to the OPP who are conducting an investigation," said Nicko Vavassis, manager of strategic communications and issues management for Attorney-General Doug Downey.

"Given the ongoing OPP investigation, and because the matter is before the courts, I cannot provide any further comment and any further questions should be directed to Ontario Provincial Police Corporate Communications Office.”

In his e-mailed statement, Mr. Vavassis did not explain what the allegations were and declined to say what proceeding is currently before the courts.

With a report from Colin Freeze

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