B.C. cabinet ministers Pat Bell and Shirley Bond were aware of and appear to have played a role in the procurement process for a multimillion-dollar contract in Prince George now at the centre of a deepening government scandal, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail, contradicting denials that the ministers were involved in the matter.
Briefing notes for Northern Development Initiative Trust chief executive officer Janine North that were prepared for a special board meeting held in September, 2009, show that Ms. North met with Mr. Bell and Ms. Bond, as well as other provincial government officials that same month to discuss the process to procure land and build the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George. The special board meeting of the NDIT was held to review approval for an $8.9-million loan to Commonwealth Campus Corp., a company controlled by Prince George businessman Dan McLaren. Commonwealth, the documents show, intended to use the loan funds to purchase the land in downtown Prince George with the assumption that the property would eventually be sold to the University of Northern British Columbia or the province for use as the site of the WIDC.
"I have had discussions, during September, 2009, with the Honourable Pat Bell, minister of Forests and Range, the Honourable Shirley Bond, minister of Transportation and Infrastructure and 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. The province is aware of the land assembly opportunity underway on the 500 block of George Street and it is a preferred location for both UNBC and the city of Prince George," Ms. North's briefing notes say.
That land assembly is at the centre of allegations facing Mr. Bell. Mr. McLaren and another Northern B.C. businessman, Brian Fehr, claim that Mr. Bell promised that their proposal would be shortlisted for the contract to build the WIDC and that the land assembled by Commonwealth would be the site of the project. The WIDC, a proposed 10-storey wood office tower, was first announced in the 2009 Throne Speech and has been billed as a showcase for B.C. wood products.
Neither Mr. McLaren's company, Commonwealth, nor The BID Group – a firm controlled by Mr. Fehr – were shortlisted for the WIDC contract. The BID Group had entered into a deal to purchase the lands from Commonwealth, but the sale has stalled since the province chose competing proposals to be shortlisted. The NDIT loan granted to Commonwealth is now in foreclosure.
In the provincial legislature this week, Mr. Bell denied during Question Period that he had any role, either direct or indirect, in influencing the NDIT's decision to award the loan to Commonwealth.
"Northern Development Initiative Trust, along with two other regional trusts in this province, are independent, arm's-lengths organizations. The province of British Columbia or any of the members of cabinet do not have any control," Mr. Bell said in response to a question from NDP MLA Norm Macdonald.
In an interview, Mr. Bell denied he was consulted as part of the loan approval process and said he merely referred Mr. McLaren to the NDIT.
"We just said, 'You should go talk to NDIT,'" Mr. Bell said. "I see Janine [North] every three or four weeks. I'm certain she said, 'Did you refer this?' Yes we did. It's something that is interesting, it could be good for the community, but you guys as a board need to decide what you are going to do with it. We're not making the decision for you. That's always very clear. The board is the one making the decisions."
Ms. Bond, in an interview, said she meets with Ms. North "regularly," and it is "not unusual for us to do that." She said she supports the WIDC because it has always been considered a possible catalyst for the development of downtown Prince George. "I meet with people all the time about investing, creating opportunities in the downtown. Dan McLaren is one of the countless people I meet with to look at how we can invest in our community," Ms. Bond said.
Ms. North refused interview requests.
In November, Mr. McLaren and Mr. Fehr lodged an official complaint with Jane Shackell, the fairness adviser who oversees the process for awarding government contracts. Ms. Shackell's report found the bidding process for the WIDC had been conducted fairly but she told CBC News that some of the complaints raised by Mr. McLaren and Mr. Fehr were outside of her mandate to investigate.
Mr. Fehr and Mr. McLaren have both contributed funds to the B.C. Liberal Party. Mr. McLaren or Commonwealth has donated at least $5,900 to the party or candidates since 2005, according to Elections B.C. records. Mr. Fehr and his companies have donated about $108,000 to the B.C. Liberals or candidates during the same period.
The WIDC matter represents another controversy for Mr. Bell, the minister of jobs, tourism and skills training. Last year, The Globe and Mail revealed that Mr. Bell had forwarded an internal government e-mail, discussing fraud allegations against a Chinese businessman who had purchased a shuttered pulp mill in Prince Rupert, to Bill Belsey, the vice-president of the B.C. Liberal party, who also worked for the Chinese businessman.