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LaGrange cleared of conflict of interest with procuring masks for Alberta schools but questions remain

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on Sept. 2, 2020. Government of Alberta

An investigation by the Alberta government’s ethics commissioner has found that Education Minister Adriana LaGrange did not break the Conflict of Interests Act after a Red Deer company was contracted to produce masks for the 2020-21 school year.

But the commissioner’s report said: “there are unanswered questions about the procurement of masks from IFR Workwear Inc.”

That procurement was alleged to have benefitted a constituent and donor to LaGrange’s election campaign.

Read more: Vast majority of Alberta’s masks for schoolchildren made in China and Mexico

But the evidence gathered by the ethics commissioner didn’t support the allegation.

“For the minister to have breached the (Conflicts of Interest) Act, I would have to find on a balance of probabilities that she directed the purchase of IFR Workwear Inc. masks,” commissioner Marguerite Trussler wrote. “She denied doing so.”

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Trussler said there is insufficient evidence to draw an inference that LaGrange directed the use of IFR.

Read more: COVID-19: Face masks for Alberta students, school staff to be delivered by Friday

“It is clear that it was the Ministry of Education that made the decision about which masks to purchase,” Nicole Sparrow, LaGrange’s press secretary, said in a statement on Monday.

“We have received commissioner Trussler’s report and are pleased to see her findings confirm that no ethics rules were broken in the procurement of masks for children in schools.

“We thank the commissioner for her diligence in compiling this report and we accept its findings.”

Campaign contribution concerns

Where the potential conflict of interest comes in is that the owner of IFR, Reg Radford, donated $2,000 to LaGrange’s election campaign, and both LaGrange and Premier Jason Kenney toured IFR’s facilities weeks before IFR was announced as one of two providers of masks to Alberta students in August 2020.

In May 2020, IFR’s Erin Buckland sent an email to the premier’s and constituency offices of Red Deer-South, Red Deer-North and Calgary-Lougheed, taking issue with the government’s announcement of providing masks for free when domestic manufacturers had been retooling to make masks.

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LaGrange’s Red Deer-North constituency office sent the letter to the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism for a response, but her constituency staff did not act on the letter.

The ethics commissioner said the fact that Radford made a political donation to LaGrange’s election campaign is “irrelevant.”

“There is no evidence that he or anyone else at IFR Workwear Inc. pushed to have its masks purchased for schools,” Trussler wrote.

Read more: Edmonton school boards release back-to-school plans for 2021

Through interviews with staff in the offices of IFR, the Education Ministry, the Provincial Operations Centre and the premier, Trussler found that the manufacturer was sought out by the premier’s office for the July 18 tour stop, which included the premier, LaGrange and Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan.

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LaGrange suggested four businesses for the tour stop, including IFR.

“Although IFR Workwear Inc. is located in the minister’s constituency and some of its owners might be described as prominent citizens within the constituency, the minister did not have a relationship with them other than crossing paths from time to time at events in the community and being (MLA) and constituents,” the commissioner said.

Shortly after the contracts for reusable masks were awarded to IFR and Old Navy, IFR spokesperson Lyn Radford told Global News masks were to be made in their Red Deer and Mexico plants.

Lingering questions

IFR was not on a list of potential cloth mask suppliers compiled by the province’s pandemic response planning team nor the Provincial Operations Centre, which is responsible for emergency communications and response co-ordination.

The report found that logistics officials in the POC “felt pressured” to use the Red Deer-based manufacturer.

Read more: Mandatory masking in place at Calgary public schools ahead of provincial COVID-19 guidance

POC’s deputy head of logistics Linda Antunes was instructed by former assistant deputy minister of education Michael Walter to find out if IFR was on the province’s vendor list. Antunes’ understanding was that the direction came from then-deputy minister of education Andre Corbould.

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When interviewed by the ethics commissioner, Walter, Corbould and chief of staff Nicole Williams could not recall where they received promotional material from the Red Deer workwear maker.

Williams told the ethics commissioner that if she did receive information about IFR, she would have passed it along to Walter or Corbould. Williams said the only time she discussed IFR was in relation to the premier’s July 2020 visit.

Read more: Alberta releases back-to-school COVID-19 guidance for 2021-22

According to the ethics commissioner, Walter said he “may have” introduced the topic of going with IFR during meetings with Antunes. Antunes noted Corbould was at the meeting, but Corbould does not recall being there and said he did not give direction to use the Red Deer company.

“The crucial questions that remain are where did the material about IFR Workwear Inc. come from and why did Michael Walter feel compelled to follow up on the company?” the ethics commissioner wrote.

Trussler found that LaGrange was part of the meeting and claims that she was not part of any discussion. Testimony from Corbould, Walter and Antunes confirmed that LaGrange “did not give a direction at the meeting, or any other time, to purchase IFR Workwear Inc. masks.”

“As a result of the lack of memory of several key people, even though there are grounds for suspicion, it is not possible to find, on a balance of probabilities, that Minister LaGrange interfered with the process,” the report added.

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‘Serious doubts’

Opposition Education Critic Sarah Hoffman said the report “makes a highly suspicious situation look even worse.”

“When a senior government minister cannot recall decisions from a few months previous when questioned under oath about allegations of corruption, it raises serious doubts about her ability to serve Albertans,” she said.

An Aug. 8, 2020 release from the province noted that the value of the contracts for masks from IFR Workwear and Old Navy totalled $4.2 million. The ethics commissioner found Old Navy produced 1,550,000 masks for $2.30 each and IFR produced 150,000 at $4.24 each.

Hoffman said Albertans should be able to expect the government to spend tax dollars “in an ethical manner.”

“It is absolutely unacceptable for a minister and her staff to claim they simply can’t remember key details of what would become part of a multi-million-dollar procurement process,” she said.

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