UBC law professor skeptical of Atira’s response to BC Housing audit

Click to play video: 'Skepticism over Atira’s planned review'
Skepticism over Atira’s planned review
Atira says it will be undertaking a third-party review of its policies and practices after this week's damning BC Housing audit, but not everyone is convinced it will be transparent. UBC Allard School of Law associate professor Carol Liao talks about the concerns she still has and what she would rather see going forward – May 13, 2023

UBC law professor Carol Liao is highly skeptical about Atira’s promise to launch a third-party review of its policies and practices in the wake of this week’s bombshell audit into BC Housing.

Atira, BC Housing and the provincial government have all come under fire after the much-anticipated financial audit of the Crown corporation was released.

The Ernst and Young report uncovered a conflict of interest connected to Atira CEO Janice Abbott and former BC Housing CEO Shane Ramsay, who are married, and who held the top jobs at the same time.

On Friday, Atira said it will be creating a taskforce that will oversee the third-party review.

“The taskforce will be comprised of Atira’s board chair and the chairs of the finance and governance committees, and discussions are underway toward the appointment of the independent review team,” Atira staff said in a release.

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Liao told Global News, she’s concerned Atira’s third-party review will be influenced as the taskforce includes the board chair and other board members.

“For the internal review…my sense is it’s a bit of a deflection. The government has already stated it wants a renewed leadership and (Atira’s) board refused,” Liao said.

“While having a third party conduct the review is obviously necessary for these circumstances, the trick is that those that are commissioning the review can dictate its scope.”

Liao explained the task force and its oversight could turn into a public-relation exercise because the review can be “strategic.”

“You can be strategic to ensure certain things aren’t examined that maybe should be examined,” she said.

“That may be where the review could be co-opted to simply serve as a PR exercise and not be reflective of broader concerns regarding Atira’s management.”

Click to play video: 'Reaction to Atira launching review of practices'
Reaction to Atira launching review of practices

The audit found that no individual materially benefitted from the conflict of interest, but raised serious questions about the oversight and financial practices of both organizations.

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Without BC Housing’s consent or knowledge, for example, Atira used $2 million in restricted, repayable funds to help fund a property purchase, and assigned an operating agreement for a women’s supportive housing program to a credit union as additional security for a mortgage.

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It also bypassed BC Housing’s standard approval channels and approached senior members of the Crown corporation directly for funding and other requests multiple times.

In its Friday statement, Atira said it has now returned nearly $2 million in surplus funds for 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, and welcomes the opportunity to discuss the recommendations arising from the Ernst and Young audit, including having a representative of the government on Atira’s board as an observer.

Liao is also questioning Janice Abbott’s future as Atira’s CEO,  citing Atira’s poor track record in terms of living conditions and safety concerns, on top of everything mentioned in the report.

“These stories go on for over a decade and I don’t know how Abbott has kept her job 10 years ago let alone last year and now,” Liao said.

“But I’ll just add, Abbott has been CEO for over 30 years and as someone who specializes in governance, that’s a long time. Often seven to ten years is regarded as the point when CEOs peak and I feel here we have an entrenched, protected CEO and what looks like a captured board. It’s very hard to challenge a CEO who’s been there for 30 years and is the main source of info and context being provided to the board.”

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Liao hopes whistleblower protection policies are in place for all crown corporations in the future and that there’s a need for more consistent financial reviews of housing providers.

Premier David Eby said earlier this week that BC Housing had taken substantive action to address management issues and conflict of interest concerns, but Atira had not.

BC Housing has already accepted all 20 recommendations of the Ernst and Young report and is working on an action plan to implement them all by next spring.

Click to play video: 'Workers at Atira  push to unionize as organization faces heavy criticism'
Workers at Atira push to unionize as organization faces heavy criticism

Just four days after the release of the audit that found he had violated conflict of interest rules, the former CEO of BC Housing has resigned from his role at a Squamish Nation company.

The Nch’kay Development confirmed Friday that Shayne Ramsay was no longer with the company, where he was serving as executive vice-president.

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Nch’Kay is the economic development arm of the Squamish Nation, spearheading the massive Sen̓áḵw housing development on Squamish land next to Vanier Park in Vancouver.

The audit found Ramsay repeatedly involved himself in matters related to Atira and interfered in decision making.

It also found that while Ramsey was CEO, Atira secured contracts without a competitive bidding process and saw its funding increase substantially.

Ramsay altered meeting minutes to obscure concerns raised about an Atira property purchase and regularly deleted text messages despite regularly doing BC Housing business through text, it further concluded.

Ramsay retired from BC Housing last August with a public letter saying he had been physically threatened and that “I no longer have confidence I can solve the complex problems facing us at BC Housing.”

Neither Abbott nor Ramsay have publicly responded to the report to date.

Atira operates 2,969 units of housing for women, children, and all gender individuals in the Lower Mainland.

— With files from Elizabeth McSheffery and Simon Little

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