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Who are these people? They supposedly worked for a Toronto police board member’s companies

A CBC Toronto investigation discovered three seemingly fabricated, or misrepresented, employees on the websites of marketing companies owned by Nadine Spencer, a member of the Toronto Police Service Board.

Nadine Spencer denies some of her employees were fabricated, won’t share proof citing employee confidentiality

Headshots of three people who appeared on BrandEq websites.

Until recently, a black-and-white photo of a woman holding her face in her hands was used to depict Mary Ellen Steinam — also known as Ellen Steinam — across social media and on the website of a marketing company founded by Toronto Police Service Board member Nadine Spencer.

Steinam worked as chief operating officer of Spencer's company BrandEQ for more than a decade, according to her LinkedIn page. Her profile said she was based in New York and had previously held other prominent marketing jobs at Nestle and Saatchi & Saatchi as far back as 1994.

On Facebook and X, she shared posts and photos of Spencer — cheering on her boss and BrandEQ.

But despite Steinam's online presence, it's unclear if she actually exists.

A search of the LexisNexis database, which combs through 84 billion public records, found no record of anyone with either variation of Steinam's name living and working in New York state — or anywhere else in the United States.

Reverse image searches also revealed that Steinam's supposed headshot appears on dozens of unrelated websites as a stock image — as do two other purported photos of her shared on Facebook.

A CBC Toronto investigation discovered Steinam is one of three seemingly fabricated or misrepresented employees who have appeared on the websites of BrandEQ and BrandEQ Black over the past decade. The other two involve the photos of identifiable but unaffiliated people being used to represent staff under a different name.

WATCH | Investigating BrandEQ's leadership:

Toronto Police board member faces questions about identities of some of her employees

1 hour ago

Duration 5:11

For years, Nadine Spencer's company BrandEQ has listed employees who appear to be fabricated, or at least misrepresented.

All sign of the three employees vanished from the websites after CBC Toronto asked Spencer about them late last month. Steinam's LinkedIn page, which features the same photo of her, was also taken down within the last week.

'Categorically' denies

In a series of email statements provided through her lawyer, Spencer "categorically" denied that Steinam and one of the other employees were fabricated.

"Although Mary is no longer an employee of BrandEQ, your due diligence should be able to verify that these are not 'fabricated' people," said lawyer Audrey DeMarsico in an email.

"BrandEQ will not be sharing confidential employee information, but out of respect for the individuals involved, the company will advise them of your inquiry."

DeMarsico said if the employees wanted to provide a statement or evidence directly, she and Spencer would ask them to do so by Tuesday evening. CBC Toronto did not hear from any of them.

The statements also said some "template content" on BrandEQ Black's site should not have been published and that previous archived versions of the BrandEQ website came from a time when it "had not been updated from theme stock images."

CBC Toronto's research included reviewing older, archived versions of the sites going back to 2013.

Several marketing experts say small businesses sometimes "bluff" themselves up, but that the use of fabricated employees is not normal practice.

"That certainly seems at least to have the potential to mislead the public, to mislead potential business partners, potential clients," said Chris MacDonald, an associate professor of ethics at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Small business owners might be tempted, says marketing professor Raunica Ahluwalia, but must make ethical decisions.

"Saying 'OK, this is where I draw the line. If we are two people, I am happy to showcase what we bring to the table,' rather than showcasing a great lineup of legendary celebrity team members to boast of," said Ahluwalia, who teaches at Seneca College in Toronto.

These findings come after some members of the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA) raised concerns about how BrandEQ received more than $1.1 million in contracted work from the charity over the course of the six years Spencer was either president of BBPA's board of directors or its CEO.

Spencer was appointed to the Toronto Police Service Board by city council in the spring of 2023. She is one of seven board members in charge of overseeing the budget and operation of Canada's largest municipal police service.

Spencer left her position as CEO of the BBPA to return to the helm of BrandEQ late last year.

Photo of Australian urologist

In addition to Steinam, an employee named Lawrence Lightman, with the title "client liaison," appeared on various versions of BrandEQ's website as far back as 2013.

Across evolving versions of the website, the same photo of a curly-haired young man was used to represent Lightman. The photo is of a real person, but not a BrandEQ staff member.

CBC Toronto traced it to blog posts from the then-president of the Australian Medical Students' Association in 2012. Dr. James Churchill is now working as a urologist.

Churchill confirmed in an email that the photo BrandEQ used is a picture of him, which he started using professionally in 2012. He also said he has never had contact with BrandEQ, let alone worked in Canada.

Spencer did not respond to repeated questions about the use of Churchill's photo, but maintained that Lightman is not a fabricated employee in the statements through her lawyer.

Those statements also said the part of the BrandEQ website where Lightman had appeared was not on their active website, but that older versions may have still been indexed by Google.

Photo of fashion designer

The third photo, used on the website for BrandEQ Black, the company's cultural sensitivity arm, represented a director named Mark Lion. Reverse image searches revealed the photo is actually of a New York-based fashion designer with a different name. He did not return calls for comment.

In a statement, DeMarsico, Spencer's lawyer, said that website was under construction and "should not have been published in its current form which includes template content," adding that this has been rectified.

Spencer did not respond to follow up questions about why the image of the fashion designer had been used on the BrandEQ Black website since 2020.

The statements from DeMarsico also said Spencer was not responsible for BrandEQ's website for the two years she was CEO of the BPPA from November 2021 to November 2023 and her company was "managed by other individuals," during that time.

However, archived versions of the websites show the employees and images in question for this story were used on both websites in the years before Spencer left.

'Incredibly proud'

BrandEQ's website describes the marketing company as "top ranked" and the City of Toronto's biography page on Spencer as a police board member describes BrandEQ as "leading global agency."

But in a statement to CBC Toronto, Spencer describes her company as a "small Black woman owned business."

"I've spent the last 12 years of my career building a successful marketing business with a focus on breaking down systemic barriers faced by the Black community," said Spencer.

"I'm incredibly proud of the work BrandEQ has done, including successful projects for some of Canada's largest organizations."

CBC Toronto reached out to the City of Toronto with questions about its vetting process for Spencer and asked whether it is concerned that a board member may have misrepresented the scale of her business.

The city did not address those questions, but in a statement a spokesperson said the Civic Appointments Committee — which is made up of city councillors — reviews applications and interviews candidates before making a recommendation to city council following the city's public appointments policy.

Maintaining public trust

All police service board members in Ontario are subject to a provincial code of conduct which states members "shall not conduct themselves in a manner that undermines or is likely to undermine the public's trust in the police service board or the police service."

Alok Mukherjee, who chaired the Toronto board from 2005 to 2015, says, generally speaking, police boards need to be very attentive to their reputations and credibility.

"[The board] has to be proactive in making sure that there are not issues related to members of the board that could become a risk to the reputation," he said.

"Because one member's reputation can affect the reputation and credibility of the whole board."

Mukherjee says the board can ask questions about a member's conduct internally. The board questioned his social media posts while he was chair. But if it decides further action is necessary (which didn't happen in his case), Mukherjee says the board must refer the issue elsewhere for investigation.

CBC Toronto asked the Toronto Police Service Board if its findings about Spencer's seemingly fabricated, or misrepresented, employees raised any concerns.

In an email, senior adviser Sandy Murray said the board has no legal authority to investigate its own members. She said the inspector general of policing has that sole authority to handle complaints that a member violated their code of conduct.

With files from the CBC Reference Library

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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