As much as she may want to deny it, B.C. Premier Christy Clark has another serious problem on her hands. And it may take the resignation of two more of her cabinet ministers to properly deal with it.
Attorney-General Shirley Bond and Jobs Minister Pat Bell are at the centre of a swelling controversy over the role they are alleged to have played in influencing the acquisition of land and the procurement process for a government project in Prince George.
The matter took on a darker hue this week when it was revealed that a government official told the head of a public trust to rewrite a letter the latter had written that originally said a loan to a Prince George businessman and Liberal Party supporter was issued "at the request of two local ministers of the Crown." A second, sanitized version of the letter made no reference to the role that the ministers purportedly played in securing the loan for businessman Dan McLaren.
Mr. McLaren and a business associate, Brian Fehr, have alleged that Mr. Bell made promises and assurances to them that Mr. Fehr's proposal to build the government-tendered Wood Innovation and Design Centre on land purchased by Mr. McLaren would get shortlisted. The $8.9-million loan that Mr. McLaren secured from the Northern Development Initiative Trust (NDIT) is now in default.
Mr. Bell and Ms. Bond have both maintained they did nothing wrong. The Premier has been adamant in supporting two of her closest ministers. But that was before the latest revelation, which certainly raises more questions about the role the two powerful Prince George politicians might have played in this matter.
The NDIT is an independent, publicly funded financial organization mandated to promote infrastructure and economic development in northern B.C. As a former board member told The Globe and Mail, it's not in the business of financing land speculation deals. If it's going to hand out nearly $9-million to someone, it has to have solid assurances that it's not for some specious real-estate fishing expedition. Certainly, having the names of two prominent cabinet ministers associated with the loan request would ease the mind of a government lender.
At the crux of this controversy, however, is the allegation that Mr. Bell made a promise to these businessmen that if Mr. McLaren assembled land in downtown Prince George, he'd get Mr. Fehr on the short list to build the wood centre. And that he'd get the specifications of the bid changed to favour construction of the project on the site Mr. McLaren had purchased with the money from the loan.
Ms. Clark has said that B.C.'s fairness commissioner, who oversees public-sector tendering, looked at the process connected to the wood centre and concluded it was conducted fairly. That report is expected to be released in a couple of weeks. But some believe that all it proves is that the commissioner found the bid proceeded according to the rules and that specs were never changed to assist a particular proponent. It's unlikely, however, that she would have looked at whether there were any attempts made by Mr. Bell to have the terms of the bid altered – which is at the heart of this mess.
This is what is upsetting several members of the Liberal caucus, who want this issue properly investigated. It's believed by most that Mr. Bell has played a more significant role in this matter than Ms. Bond. In fact, at a recent caucus meeting, Liberal backbencher Randy Hawes asked Mr. Bell to step aside until he'd been cleared of wrongdoing by an independent overseer. Mr. Bell flatly rejected the proposition. Mr. Hawes's request was also scoffed at by fellow backbencher Kevin Krueger, who made a noisy show of protest.
But many in the Liberal ranks maintain serious doubts about this issue and the role Mr. Bell is purported to have played in it. Now Ms. Bond has been dragged into the picture in a serious way as well. More generally, several Liberal MLAs have expressed concern that the government has lost its moral compass and that the Premier's refusal to have the ministers step aside until this case can be investigated thoroughly is another example of that.
This past week, Multiculturalism Minister John Yap was asked to step aside in the ethnic-vote scandal, even though there was no evidence that he had any role to play in it. Certainly he faced nothing like the allegations now swirling around ministers Bond and Bell in the wood-centre affair. There seems to be one set of standards for certain ministers and another for others, depending on your place in cabinet and your association with the Premier.
If there is nothing to this story, as Ms. Bond and Mr. Bell insist, it would take a respected arbiter little time to get to the bottom of it. But until that is done, the ministers and their government remain under a cloud.