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Chris Bolton says the Atkinson Foundation was aware his charity would deduct a commission from their donation.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government investigated the chair of Canada's largest school board over management fees his charity collected from donations to a school while he was principal, documents show.

The Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee launched a probe in 2003, in response to a complaint from the Toronto District School Board, according to internal reports obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The complaint was part of a lengthy investigation by TDSB staff into donations intended for Ryerson Community School that Chris Bolton directed to his own charity before he was elected a trustee in 2003. Mr. Bolton was principal of the Toronto elementary school at the time.

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The probe by the Public Guardian, which protects the public's interest in charities, "would continue in respect of the 5% management fees charged," according to a letter dated Oct. 1, 2003, written by a law firm retained by the TDSB.

The outcome of the Public Guardian's probe is not known. Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Attorney-General, said in an e-mail to The Globe that the Public Guardian's Office "does not comment on a particular charity or those running it, nor do we confirm whether or not a complaint … has been received."

A second law firm retained by the TDSB, Keel Cottrelle, accused Mr. Bolton of breaching his fiduciary duties by directing donations for Ryerson to his own charity rather than to the TDSB, according to a letter to him dated Feb. 25, 2005.

Mr. Bolton's charity, Friends of Community Schools, deducted a 5-per-cent commission on funds donated to Ryerson, the letter says.

By contrast, the TDSB, which became a registered charity in 1998, does not charge fees for administrating student awards, according to the documents and a spokesman for the school board.

In the letter to Mr. Bolton, he is asked to repay $3,250 in commissions that were "unauthorized" and "constitute misappropriation of funds." Mr. Bolton's charity charged the commissions on donations to Ryerson totalling $65,000, including $50,000 from the Atkinson Foundation and $10,000 from actor Denzel Washington.

It is not known whether Mr. Bolton, who became chair of the TDSB in 2010, repaid the money. He told The Globe he never saw the letter from Keel Cottrelle, which was sent to his home by registered mail. He also suggested that the TDSB does charge fees.

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"They don't charge it outright," he said. "You can't tell me they don't take fees indirectly from trust funds."

Mr. Bolton defended his actions, saying his charity held the donations in trust for Ryerson, and that the Atkinson Foundation was aware that his charity would deduct a 5-per-cent commission.

Charles Pascal, executive director of Atkinson at the time, declined to comment, saying he no longer represents the foundation. His successor, Colette Murphy, said she does not know why the award was directed to Mr. Bolton's charity instead of the TDSB. "We don't have documentation on the rationale for the decision," she said in an e-mail to The Globe.

Neither the Public Trustee's investigation, nor the internal probes, were disclosed to trustees. The TDSB said it closed the file in 2005.

Sheila Ward, a TDSB trustee who was chair at the time, said she had no reason to bring the probes forward to trustees because there was no proof that Mr. Bolton had done anything wrong.

Her decision not to advise trustees was bolstered by the Atkinson Foundation, which she said was "telling us that it was none of our business." She also said the Public Guardian "had no intention of taking it up either."

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"My position was if there's anything wrong that involves the TDSB, then there's no way in hell we're going to let it go and we'll deal with it," she said. "But unless there is, I'm not going to lead us down a path where we can end up being sued because we act inappropriately or we act without any evidence."

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