Christy Clark defends Pat Bell after complaint filed over government bidding process

Premier Christy Clark strongly defended one of her senior ministers Tuesday against allegations from two B.C. Liberal insiders that he acted in bad faith during the bid process for a multimillion-dollar government contract.

“I believe all of that (process) has been done at arm’s length by qualified civil servants,” Clark told reporters Tuesday. She was responding to questions about the actions of Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training Pat Bell in connection with the Prince George-based Wood Innovation and Design Centre.

“As far as I understand it, it’s been done absolutely right.”

New Democratic Party leader Adrian Dix led off question period pressing the government over the allegations and called for an immediate investigation. Opposition members pressed Bell, Clark and Justice Minister Shirley Bond on why the government hadn’t taken any earlier action to investigate.

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Clark’s defence came after a businessman who has donated more than $120,000 to the party accused Bell of bad faith. Brian Fehr also said that Bell subsequently adjusted the terms of a bid document to favour Fehr’s proposal.

Fehr, whose company was among the unsuccessful bidders for the $25-million Wood Innovation and Design Centre, said Bell promised to ensure that his company would make the shortlist of three companies if Fehr could build a project that was more substantial than what was called for in the bidding.

“The problem was that the province had overcommitted on building a fancy building in three throne speeches … about how this was going to be iconic and 10 storeys and the biggest in the world,” Fehr said in an interview Tuesday, adding that Bell “had been very loud in the north” about the development.

Bell represents Prince George-Mackenzie, a riding that includes a portion of Prince George.

Fehr said the bid documents that had been issued called for something much less substantial than what had been promised.

Fehr said that in a meeting with Bell, he offered to help out by involving private-sector money, and to build a more impressive building than what was contemplated in the bid.

“He committed to me that if I would do that – purchase the land off (Prince George businessman) Dan McLaren – that he would make sure we got shortlisted and then you could have what they call an alternative method in the bid,” he said.

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“He absolutely promised me that he would get me shortlisted.”

Fehr said that as a result of that promise, his company entered into an agreement to buy land from McLaren, who had assembled multiple properties in downtown Prince George at a site being proposed for the Wood Innovation and Design Centre.

McLaren has alleged he bought these lands at the urging of the provincial government.

Documents show that Fehr’s company, The Bid Group, paid McLaren’s company a $150,0000 deposit for the land during the bid process, but was not shortlisted.

On Tuesday, Fehr said Bell was apologetic after the final three companies were announced at the end of last year, and offered to rework the final process of the bid in a way that would allow disqualified companies to vie for a part of the project.

“He tried to amend Partnerships B.C. proposal structure, for sure,” said Fehr. “He had his fingers way too close into it.”

The project’s request for proposals – issued after Fehr’s company was excluded – added a requirement that the winning bidder work with the private sector to develop and build another project on adjacent land.

The government suspended the bidding process at the end of last year after receiving complaints about the added requirement. The controversial element was removed before the bid was allowed to continue.

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None of the allegations have been proven.

On Tuesday, Partnerships B.C. referred questions to the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training.

In a written statement, deputy minister Dave Byng said the private sector criteria “was added in an effort to realize an increased overall potential benefit of this project for downtown Prince George. A project that incorporates additional land or buildings would have increased the iconic status of the development.

“On Dec. 14, 2012, the private sector component of the RFP was removed as a result of concern from the three proponents that expansion to the scope of the project would make it unlikely to continue to meet set project timelines,” he added.

Bell has denied the allegations of misconduct, saying he never made any promises to anyone about the bidding process.

“Of course not, nor would it be appropriate,” he said in an interview last week. “I understand my responsibilities. I also understand my authorities. That’s not one of them,” he added.

“There has never been any discussions between me and Mr. Fehr about land or land purchases. I was aware that he had an interest in bidding on the project but he approached me and said he was interested in bidding,” he continued.

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“I said, ‘Great, happy to have you in the bid process and good luck to you.’”

Fehr and McLaren brought their allegations in November to fairness adviser Jane Shackell, a lawyer charged with overseeing the fairness of the bid process.

“Our complaint centres on breached protocols, broken promises, misrepresentation, false warranties and bad faith,” McLaren wrote in the letter of complaint.

“We were duped into this deal. The government has been caught playing ‘dirty tricks’ on us,” added the letter, which was written by Mclaren and supported by Fehr.

“We have lost a great deal of money. We want out.”

In an interview last week, Shackell said she has determined that the bid selection process had been conducted fairly, but acknowledged she does not have the ability or mandate to investigate much of what McLaren and Fehr allege in their complaint.

“I investigated such as I considered necessary and I concluded that the RFQ (Request for Qualifications) process had been managed in accordance with the documents and fairly,” she said.

“Much of what they would like to have addressed by the province didn’t fall within my mandate which was that the procurement was being run in accordance with the RFQ. I did tell them at the time I had no ability to resolve their matters and really not much ability to comment on them either.”

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On Tuesday, Dix said that finding demonstrates the need for an immediate investigation.

“Obviously there are serious problems with the process and the government seems to have done nothing with very serious allegations made by a friend of the government, it would appear, against ministers to the government,” he said.

“I think the government should investigate very serious allegations as to its conduct of this bid process.”

But Clark said she thinks it is clear the process has been fair.

“The issue has been handled by civil servants. It hasn’t been handled by politicians at all,” she said.

“My concern is whether or not this process has been managed fairly. And it has been managed fairly.”

Bell said he has seen the complaint that went to Shackell, but would not comment on it directly.

“There was a complaint filed. The fairness adviser did a review of that. I was interviewed,” he said, adding Shackell’s report will be released when the contract is awarded, which he said could be as early as next month.

McLaren ran against Pat Bell in 2001 for the B.C. Liberal nomination in Prince George, and during the B.C. Liberal leadership race publicly endorsed Kevin Falcon. He’s also donated about $3,000 to the B.C. Liberal Party.

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Fehr, both personally and through his company, has donated more than $120,000 to the B.C. Liberal Party over a six-year period. Last year, Bell named Fehr to the B.C. Jobs and Investment Board.

Fehr said he has now lost his $150,000 deposit on the purchase of the lands, and will likely face court action from McLaren over the validity of the sale. Fehr said it was done on the condition his company make the short list.

Through his company Commonwealth Campus Corporation, McLaren assembled the land with the assistance of a loan from the Northern Development Initiative Trust, a non-profit corporation that helps stimulate local economic growth, in downtown Prince George, where the project was expected to be built.

Northern Development Initiative Trust, filed a foreclosure notice against Commonwealth in B.C. Supreme Court this past November. Court documents show it is demanding the payment of a $1.5 million loan, plus interest at a daily rate of $270.48.