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Bell told developer to secure Prince George city block for wooden office tower, affidavit says

A digital rendering of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre to be constructed in Prince George, B.C., March 22, 2013.

B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell told a Prince George developer to secure lands in the city's downtown for use as the site of a government-funded wooden office tower, according to a sworn affidavit filed this week in B.C. Supreme Court.

The affidavit was filed as part of foreclosure proceedings brought against Commonwealth Campus Corporation, a company controlled by Daniel McLaren.

Mr. McLaren said in the sworn statement that Mr. Bell advised him to secure an entire city block in Prince George and assured the businessman that the Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC), a taxpayer-funded project first announced in 2009 and aimed at showcasing B.C. wood products, would be built on that land.

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"Minister Bell agreed that failing to secure these lands early in the process would be detrimental to the ongoing viability of the WIDC project … Minister Bell said to me that though it was not yet clear which public body was going to own WIDC …(the City of Prince George, UNBC and NDIT were all considered possible owners), it was certainly going to be built and we should secure the entire 400 Block of George Street," Mr. McLaren stated in the 19-page affidavit filed in Prince George.

None of the statements made by Mr. McLaren has been proved in court.

Mr. Bell, in a statement issued Tuesday through his communications staff, said he has always supported the WIDC and has previously addressed questions about his role in the land-acquisition and procurement process.

"I have always been an advocate for building the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George. I have addressed these issues on numerous occasions in the media as well as in the house. At this point in time, I have nothing more to say on this topic," Mr. Bell's statement said.

Following years of delays and funding shortfalls, including a promise made by Premier Christy Clark in 2011 that the project would be the world's tallest multi-use wood building, the government announced plans for a scaled-down WIDC last week. With a budget of $25-million, it will be just six storeys tall and will not use all the land secured by Mr. McLaren. The developer had financed the land purchase with a loan from the Northern Development Initiative Trust, a public money trust created to promote infrastructure and economic development. Documents filed in court by Mr. McLaren show the loan was to be used to buy lands that would be used for the WIDC. The loan, of which $1.45-million is outstanding, is now in foreclosure.

The fresh allegations facing Mr. Bell come as B.C. Liberal MLA Kash Heed is calling on the Jobs Minister and fellow Prince George MLA and Attorney-General Shirley Bond to step down from cabinet until a full investigation of their alleged involvement in the land deals and procurement process for the WIDC is completed.

"There's a lot of public interest in [the WIDC matter] and I'm coming from the point of view of the public's interest in ensuring that their politicians have the legitimacy to govern the province of B.C.," Mr. Heed said in an interview. "The moment that this trust is called into question our entire system of government is compromised."

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Mr. Heed said both Prince George MLAs should step down from cabinet to maintain the integrity of B.C.'s executive council.

A former West Vancouver police chief, Mr. Heed himself resigned from cabinet in 2010 after learning he was going to be questioned by the RCMP about violations of the Elections Act in his campaign office.

Mr. Heed said there has been a lot of discussion about the matter in Victoria, with "upwards of eight" MLAs in his circle agreeing the ministers should resign. Mr. Heed, who will not seek re-election, would not name those in agreement, saying "I'll leave it for those colleagues to come forward."

Speaking to reporters in Surrey, Ms. Clark said "I don't agree with [Mr. Heed] obviously on this."

"Shirley Bond has conducted herself with absolute integrity. That's the reason she's running again and part of our renewed team," she said.

While Ms. Bond is seeking re-election, Mr. Bell is not, due to a health issue.

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Ms. Bond did not respond to requests for comment made through her communications staff.

Another Prince George businessman, Brian Fehr, previously alleged to CBC News that Mr. Bell assured him that his proposal to build the WIDC using lands controlled by Mr. McLaren, would be shortlisted for the government contract. It was not and it was announced last week the contract had been awarded to PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc., a firm that has donated more than $100,000 to the B.C. Liberal Party. Mr. Fehr has also donated more than $100,000 to the B.C. Liberals. Mr. Bell has maintained that he acted appropriately in the process.

Mr. McLaren's affidavit also said that it was made clear to him at a Sept. 8, 2009 meeting that included Mr. Bell, Ms. Bond and the chairman of the NDIT, Bruce Sutherland, that the government was looking to have NDIT take a lead role in the land assembly and related financing for WIDC. "This was confirmed when Minister Bond very strongly stated to Bruce Sutherland that NDIT should 'get behind this,' " the affidavit said.

NDIT officials would not comment on the affidavit.

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An award-winning journalist, Andy Hoffman is the Asia-Pacific Reporter for Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. More

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