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P.S.A.'S · 6th March 2013
Merv Ritchie
What follows is a draft transcript of the discussions in the Provicial Legislature. Ministers in conversation (question period) regarding Pat Bell and Shirley Bond with the the funding from Northern Development Trust. The allegations are influence peddling - the Ministers directing distribution and withdrawal of funding. As Bond is implicated it is alleged she should not be investigating

HANSARD - WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6, 2013

Afternoon Sitting

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO ALLEGATIONS REGARDING WOOD INNOVATION CENTRE BIDDING PROCESS

N. Macdonald: Last week the opposition raised questions in the House related to a complaint by two Prince George business owners about the actions of two ministers in the assembly of property for the Wood Innovation and Design Centre.

Now, the government asserted at the time that the fairness adviser had exonerated the two ministers of any wrongdoing, but British Columbians are going to need proof to back up that assertion.

The question for the Justice Minister is this. Will she release today the full report of the fairness adviser, including all records and correspondence between the government, the complainants and all other interested parties?

Hon. P. Bell: I was clear about this answer last week. I'll repeat it for the member opposite. All documents will be released when the contract is awarded. I'm led to believe by the project board that that will be in the next week or two.

I do have a letter from the fairness adviser that articulates, I think, the answer to the member opposite's question. The fairness adviser refers to the letter to her regarding the procurement process for the wood innovation and design centre, including the allegations that there were promises made. In the letter it says: "I reviewed the matter and subsequently reported to the project board that I was satisfied the evaluation process had not been compromised and that the procurement had been handled appropriately to date."

The remainder of the materials, of course, will be released, as I said, when the contract's awarded.

N. Macdonald: Clearly, selectively reading elements out of the report is not going to be satisfactory in any way. The allegations are incredibly serious.

I'll just read what one of the local business people said, and this is on the record. It's a direct quote here, speaking about the Jobs Minister. "The Jobs Minister committed to me that if I would do that, purchase the land off Dan McLaren, that he would make sure we got shortlisted and then you could have what they call an alternative method in the bid. He absolutely promised me that he would get me shortlisted."

There have been eight days since the allegations were published in the media. What steps has the Justice Minister taken to investigate what are very serious charges?

Hon. P. Bell: I, again, answered that question last week. Those allegations are false. If the member would like to repeat those allegations outside of this House, I would encourage him to do so.

D. Donaldson: These are serious allegations, and they're public allegations. They are, in fact, the allegations of a longtime B.C. Liberal donor and well-established northern business owner. This business owner said the Jobs Minister was eventually… This business owner said the Jobs Minister was eventually apologetic but that he would continue to try to make the deal work in his donor's favour. "He tried to amend Partnerships B.C. proposal structure, for sure," the business owner alleges. And another quote: "He had his fingers way too close into it." It's simply not good enough for the Liberal government to ignore these very serious allegations.

Again to the Justice Minister: what steps has she taken to address the allegations of impropriety by the Jobs Minister?

Hon. P. Bell: I'm certain that the member opposite will have an opportunity to answer this question in his supplemental. I would just ask the member opposite if he would confirm whether or not Mr. Fehr, who is the individual that he's referring to, has made a significant donation to the NDP in the last 12 or 13 months through either himself or one of his companies.

D. Donaldson: While this is question period, we're asking the questions. If the minister waits long enough, he'll get his chance on this side to ask questions.

Last week the Jobs Minister claimed that he was… Last week the Jobs Minister claimed that he was completely hands-off from the decision-making and the land deal at the heart of these allegations. Yet the public record showed something different.

A briefing note for decision prepared by the CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust, Janine North, says that both the Jobs Minister and the Justice Minister were part of discussions about the location of the wood innovation and design centre. Ms. North said: "I have had discussions during September 2009 with the Minister of Forests and Range, the Minister of Transportation Infrastructure and the vice-chair of the Treasury Board, who have all clearly articulated the strong interest of having UNBC's wood innovation and design centre located in downtown Prince George." She then adds: "The government is aware of the land assembly opportunity."

Now, given the discrepancy between what the Jobs Minister says and what is on the public record from the CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust, what is the Justice Minister doing to investigate these ongoing allegations?

Hon. P. Bell: I challenged the member opposite to disclose whether or not Mr. Fehr, through any of his companies, had made a significant donation to the NDP.

Perhaps the member doesn't know that last February, February of 2012, Mr. Fehr, through one of his companies, wrote a cheque to the NDP for $50,000. Perhaps the member opposite doesn't know that Mr. Fehr had one of his employees go and pick up the Leader of the Opposition, show him around Prince George for a day and helped to start organize the NDP campaign in Prince George. Perhaps the member opposite doesn't know that this is the same Mr. Fehr that has been attending and helped organize different events for the NDP throughout Prince George and in the forestry industry.

Mr. Speaker, this member refuses to repeat the allegations outside the chamber that he has raised inside the chamber. I'd encourage him, if he has the conviction of his beliefs, to do that outside.

M. Karagianis: These are very serious allegations against a minister of the Crown.

That briefing note for decision was a well-considered document drafted by the CEO of a trust that is now under the purview of that minister. It was presented to the board of the Northern Development Initiative Trust by Ms. North, the CEO. . . The note was presented to the board of the Northern Development Initiative Trust by Ms. North, the CEO. Her purpose was to convince the board to lend a considerable amount of money to Commonwealth Campus for a public project. After clearly saying that the Jobs Minister and the Justice Minister had thrown their political weight behind a specific purchase of land, she made the recommendation that "a term sheet be developed to enable Northern Initiative Development Trust to provide a secured loan to the Commonwealth Campus Corp." The term sheet would be subject to a Treasury Board decision which approves sufficient capital budget for the construction of the wood innovation centre.

Again, to the Justice Minister. This contradicts what the Jobs Minister has been saying and supports the allegations made by two Prince George developers. So what steps is the Justice Minister taking to get to the bottom of these allegations?

Hon. P. Bell: It's interesting to me that one of the individuals that's making the allegations has donated a significant amount of money to the NDP, about a year ago. Of course, we don't have any more current records than that, so it would be interesting to see what additional donations have been made by these parties to the opposition during that point in time. It certainly brings into question, for me, what is going on here.

I know that research doesn't fall in the long suit of the opposition, but I would like to raise something for the member opposite that would be readily available, actually, on the racks over in the corner. It's the Northern Development Initiative Trust Act that was passed in this House. I actually think members on both sides supported it when it went through.

If the members check section 2, they will note that the responsibility of the Northern Development Initiative Trust is to establish regional advisory committees. And who sits on those regional advisory committees? All of the mayors of each of the municipalities within the region that have a population greater than 500, the chairs of the regional district that is in part or in whole within the region and, Mr. Speaker, members of the Legislative Assembly. It is our responsibility to advise Northern Development Initiative Trust, not to make the decisions — to advise. That's exactly what that note says. Of course we would be advocating for projects in our community. That's our responsibility.

M. Karagianis: Earlier this week we learned that the Jobs Minister and the former Finance Minister met with the mayor of Prince George and the CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust in the spring of 2012. They met to discuss the wood innovation centre.

But the mayor of Prince George, Shari Green, is on the record as saying that the Jobs Minister, after all of the encouragement to assemble this land and encouragement for these developers to make their submission, suggested that the Northern Development Initiative Trust, after having loaned them the money, foreclose on the loan to Mr. McLaren — a loan assured by the lands involved in the wood innovation centre.

Six months later, and quite suddenly, the trust did exactly that. Now these two business owners are out hundreds of thousands of dollars and are alleging impropriety at the hands of the Jobs Minister.

So to the Justice Minister: these are very serious allegations — not to be taken lightly, not to be brushed off by the Jobs Minister. What is the Justice Minister doing to get to the bottom of these allegations?

Hon. P. Bell: If the member opposite were to read the entire clip that she just referred to, she would note that the mayor of Prince George noted that she thought I was speaking in jest and that I was not serious when I suggested that. That's actually what the full clip says.

But I would point out to the member opposite — and again, I'm happy to provide a copy of the Northern Development Initiative Trust Act for her if she is unable to source that document — that subsection 5(3) of the act says: "The Northern Development Initiative Trust is not an agent of the government." Decisions are made by the board. It is the responsibility of local MLAs, local mayors, local regional district chairs to advise the board on good projects. We do exactly that. I'm sure that the member opposite would do that if she had that opportunity as well.

J. Horgan: Will the Jobs Minister advise this House if he received correspondence in March 2010 from the CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust?

Hon. P. Bell: I don't know what correspondence the member is referring to. I'll take that question on notice.

J. Horgan: The minister was referring to sections of the act whereby the advisory committees offer advice. I have a document signed by Janine North, the CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust that says as follows: "We have acted as the lender, financing 75 percent of the property acquisition costs of the following lots at the request of the two local ministers of the Crown and the interest expressed by the mayor and council of the city of Prince George."

So my question is to the minister. When does requesting by the person who appoints the CEO or person who appoints the board…? When does that request become coercion, and will he answer that question?

Hon. P. Bell: The member opposite usually comes better prepared for question period than he has today, clearly. I think that he has just crossed a line, and that is an interesting comment would it be made outside the House.

Clearly, the member opposite just read something, and I don't have a copy of that document in front of me. I don't know what he's referring to. But I recall him saying in his words that the mayor and council of Prince George were also involved in that.

Northern Development Initiative Trust is an independent body. The province of British Columbia appoints five of 13 members to that board. The board is controlled by mayors throughout the Northern Development Initiative Trust area, not by this provincial government. That's the way it was set up in the first place. The Auditor General has continued to confirm that this is an arm's-length organization. They make decisions on their own. The member opposite should do his homework.

J. Horgan: Now, serious allegations have been swirling around the wood innovation and design centre in Prince George — serious allegations. The document prepared by the CEO of the Northern Trust says that moneys were lent — public moneys were lent — to private individuals to assemble land at the request of the Minister of Jobs and the Attorney General.

Clearly, the Attorney General can't investigate herself, hon. Speaker. My question is to the Premier. Isn't it past time that an independent body is appointed to investigate the scandal swirling around the wood innovation and design centre. Isn't it about time?

Hon. P. Bell: You know, in about 14 or so minutes, maybe 15, that member opposite is going to have a chance to walk through those doors and make that same statement outside. That would be outside the protection that is offered to that member when he's inside this House.

You know what, Mr. Speaker? There was actually an interesting interview by a gentleman who is a reporter in Prince George today, who has actually been on this file since last November. The member opposite should read the transcript. You know what it says, Mr. Speaker? They've dug as deep as they can on this, and there's nothing there. It's that simple. If the member opposite has any evidence, any evidence to the contrary, I'd encourage him to step outside and provide that evidence publicly.

L. Krog: It's most interesting how the standard of public inquiry in this province is devolved down to investigative reporters being relied on to give proof of allegations to the people of British Columbia.

Hon. Speaker, these allegations are not allegations made by the opposition pulled out of thin air. These are serious allegations made in written submissions to the fairness adviser and corroborated by statements on the public record and written documents by public officials. When such serious allegations are made and when they're levied against cabinet ministers, it's vital — I would trust and hope — and clear to all that the public interest be protected. That requires that the Attorney General get to the bottom of it.

Will the Attorney General, in her role today, commit to a thorough independent investigation to get to the bottom of the allegations around the wood innovation and design centre and land assembly?

Hon. P. Bell: I find it a little tough to take from a member from Nanaimo, the only party in this House that actually has had an organized kickback scheme from charities to help fund their political party — to make such accusations, particularly for the member for Nanaimo to raise that.

Ms. Shackell has thoroughly reviewed this matter. She'll be releasing her full report. I've already read into the record the key comments she's made to the board that is carrying this project forward. The decisions are being made independently at arm's length from me. It's going to be a great project. It's going to advance wood technologies in British Columbia. It's a long time coming, and it's going to really yield benefits for British Columbians well into the future.

L. Krog: If the minister has any allegations to make about my association, or lack thereof, with the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society, let him take it outside.

We've heard denials from ministers of the Crown, but they fly in the face of what's on the public record. Ms. Shackell herself indicated she had no jurisdiction to investigate. The minister is suggesting an investigative reporter has some jurisdiction to investigate. So the issue becomes very much one of public trust. The only way you can ensure that trust is if there's an investigation.

I would remind the Attorney General that she sits at a cabinet table enjoying a very important role, a dual role. She is not just a member of cabinet. She is the Attorney General. It's a tough call for her to make, but I'm suggesting to her today that what the appropriate thing to do is to advise the House that she's going to order an independent investigation into this matter and clear the air once and for all. If this government has nothing to hide, then let it be investigated appropriately.

Hon. P. Bell: You know, it's interesting to me that that member would ask this question — for a couple of reasons. One is that he's from Nanaimo, but the other is that he actually sits on one of the advisory boards for the Island Coastal Economic Trust. I bet that he has gone and advocated for projects to that particular trust in his community. I am almost certain of that. Perhaps the member opposite could tell us what projects he's been advocating for in his community.