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Chace Barber of Edison Motors with the company’s hybrid truck, in Toronto, on Sept. 27, 2023.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Chace Barber says he would rather be going viral on social media for the latest hybrid logging truck built by Edison Motors, the startup he co-founded out of his parent’s basement in Merritt, B.C.

Instead, the long-hauler turned entrepreneur has become the centre of a political firestorm surrounding a provincial grant program meant to transition commercial vehicles to electricity.

He had taken to TikTok late last week to explain how a private consulting company hired by the B.C. government to administer the province’s clean-energy grant program rejected his application.

But that same company, he said in a phone interview, was also offering its services to write Edison’s application for other provincial funding streams in exchange for 20 per cent of the grant won, a charge he said a consultant with the company described as a “success fee.”

The allegations highlighted by opposition parties last week were initially dismissed by the Energy Minister as providing no evidence of wrongdoing. However, they gained traction over the weekend and led the provincial government to announce Monday that it was referring the issue to the Auditor-General. Energy Minister Josie Osborne said the government received new information, which has not been disclosed.

MNP’s administration of the Commercial Vehicle Innovation Challenge (CVIC) and the Advanced Research and Commercialization (ARC) grants was suspended, she said. The company denies the allegations and says it welcomes the independent review.

Opposition parties have demanded that the government appoint a special prosecutor to look into MNP and the oversight of the CleanBC grant program. The government has not responded to the call.

On Wednesday, Kevin Falcon, Leader of the Official Opposition BC United Party, also demanded that Premier David Eby release the text of its grant-program contract with MNP.

Mr. Eby replied that the grants make it very clear that the money provided cannot be used for consultant fees. He said his government is reviewing whether it can release the contract with MNP. Mr. Eby encouraged anyone with any relevant evidence to share it with the Auditor-General’s office, which can expand the scope of its investigation to other grant programs and processes if necessary.

MNP declined an interview request this week. Nick Greenfield, its senior vice-president of marketing, sent a statement saying it can’t comment on specific applications. However, the statement said the company welcomes the Auditor-General’s review and that its conflict-of-interest policies and procedures prohibit team members from writing grants for programs it administers.

“We are aware of an allegation that one of our teams working in the province of B.C. in our grant-management service line acted in the capacity as both the administrator and grant application consultant on the CleanBC grant program. These allegations are false and misleading.”

Mr. Barber was at the legislature in February, when he and his company were feted by all parties for getting the first semi-truck built in British Columbia in the past 30 years officially insured and licensed for the road.

He said that while he was in Victoria, he passed on information to a representative of Ms. Osborne about the hurdles he faced getting government money to construct his hybrid heavy-duty engines, which his group of 15 employees build “outside in the winter with no heat.”

He told the representative, as well as opposition politicians, that MNP had approached his company offering to write grant proposals about a week before Edison’s application was denied. He said he declined MNP’s business because its rates were astronomical.

He said he was shocked to find that the CVIC contact used a government e-mail address to decline his application, and then later used an MNP e-mail to schedule a debrief about Edison’s failed application. (Mr. Barber said MNP never offered to help write Edison’s CVIC grant.)

“All we know at the time was that they were deciding grants, recommending grant programs, doing economic assessments of the program and asking to write our [other] grants,” he said.

“I’m saying that we felt strong-armed into going with this company because it seemed like, ‘oh, well, this company controls everything to do with the grant.’ “

Mr. Barber, 35, is bewildered that it took a video – which quickly garnered half a million views and includes screen captures of his correspondence with MNP and the province – to bring attention to a system he maintained isn’t right.

“I’m trying to build trucks here, not get involved in politics, but it shows you how broken the system is,” he said.

“To even bring any awareness to what’s going on with government grants you have to have a viral video on TikTok that starts bringing light.”

Garrett Mac Sweeney, an instructor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s business school and expert in business ethics, said this investigation will hinge on whether information was shared between different arms of the same company.

“The question is really, ‘what, internally, was occurring?’ ” he said.

Mr. Barber said his company is looking to purchase its first shop and continues to grow despite a lack of provincial support.

“Local guys like us and all the other companies I know in B.C. are struggling and dying and we don’t have enough money to even pay the amount to write the grant.”

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