The head of an independent, public money trust was told by a senior government bureaucrat to rewrite a letter that said a loan to a private Prince George businessman and B.C. Liberal party insider was issued at the "request of two local Ministers of the Crown."
In a statement issued through a spokesperson, Janine North, the head of the Northern Development Initiative Trust, said that after she sent the letter addressed to two government bureaucrats, including the deputy of minister of forests, Dana Hayden, dated March 8, 2010, "provincial staff … asked for additional information and clarity, and asked the Trust to write a new letter."
The original letter is at the crux of allegations facing two key cabinet ministers in Premier Christy Clark's besieged government. They are accused of improperly influencing the land acquisition and procurement process for a government project in Prince George called the Wood Innovation and Design Centre.
Jobs Minister Pat Bell and Attorney-General Shirley Bond, both MLAs from Prince George, have denied any wrongdoing. The Premier, still reeling from the recent multicultural voter outreach scandal, has said she is standing by her ministers. However, the fact that provincial staff asked Ms. North to change the wording of the letter, including the key phrase that the $8.9-million loan was issued at the "request of two local Ministers of the Crown," is raising further questions about the ethical standards of the B.C. Liberal government.
In a statement, a government official said that it was Ms. Hayden, the deputy minister under Mr. Bell at the time, who asked that Ms. North make the changes and rewrite the letter.
"After receiving the initial letter, the Deputy Minister of Forests and Range at the time, Ms. Dana Hayden, requested that NDIT provide additional details regarding the lots assembled, and clarification as to the role being played by NDIT with the various parties. Those details were provided in the second letter. Minister Bell did not see either one of the letters," the statement said.
Ms. Hayden began working closely with Mr. Bell during his days as forest minister, but left the civil service last summer to take over as president of B.C. Pavilion Corp. She did not return calls seeking comment.
The NDIT is an arm's-length, publicly funded trust, mandated to promote infrastructure and economic development in Northern B.C. Provincial cabinet ministers are supposed to have no role in the trust's funding decisions.
The lending agreement referenced in the letter was an $8.9-million loan issued to Commonwealth Campus Corp., a company controlled by Prince George businessman Dan McLaren. Mr. McLaren, who once sought the B.C. Liberal candidate nomination for a riding in Prince George, used the funds from NDIT to purchase downtown lands that included the Prince George Hotel.
Mr. McLaren and another local businessman named Brian Fehr have alleged that Mr. Bell made promises and assurances to them that their proposal would be shortlisted for the government contract for the Wood Centre. They did not make the short list, however, and the NDIT loan to Mr. McLaren is now in default.
It appears the NDIT issued the loan to a private company because the lands were slated to be used as the site for the Wood Centre, a government initiative to promote the use of B.C. wood products. The project was first announced in the government's Speech from the Throne in 2009.
Dan Rogers, who was the mayor of Prince George at the time the letter was issued and a board member of NDIT, said in an interview that it was his understanding that the loan was made to the McLaren group with the belief that the lands purchased would be used for a project featuring the Wood Centre. "In my time on the board I don't recall us ever financing a private-land speculation deal and, in fact, it was my understanding that such funding would likely be beyond the mandate of NDIT," he said.
Ms. North, in a separate statement, defended NDIT's decision to make the loan.