CBC News has learned the Ontario Provincial Police are probing complaints of potential conflict of interest involving the town council in Collingwood, Ont., and politicians’ ties to a lobbyist involved in a multi-million dollar sale of a local utility and on a proposed new casino.
Paul Bonwick, a former Liberal MP and now a lobbyist and president of Compenso Communications, was hired last fall by a group of investors — including the owners of the Georgian Manor resort — who wanted to bring a 300-slot machine facility to town.
Two citizens have complained to police that they fear some members of council are being improperly influenced by Bonwick and are failing to disclose their close relationships with him — amounting to a lack of transparency, or at worst a conflict of interest.
The CBC has found no evidence anyone violated any laws.
Bonwick was hired last October, and offered $20,000 as an initial retainer with the prospect of receiving $480,000 over two years if the town green-lighted the casino project and Georgian Manor won the slot contract from Ontario's Lottery and Gaming Corporation, according to a number of sources.
Bonwick confirms he was hired for strategic consultations — but tells CBC he did not lobby anyone. Bonwick stated explicitly he would not lobby any elected officials but instead gave the group advice on how specific council members might vote and might be swayed.
Bonwick is the brother of Mayor Sandra Cooper. He is also a close family friend of Deputy Mayor Rick Lloyd. And Coun. Ian Chadwick is a contract employee with Bonwick's company.
In early November, Collingwood council voted 5-4 to reject hosting an OLG slot machine facility. The mayor and deputy mayor both voted in favour, never publicly discussing Bonwick's involvement.
"I do not have an interest. There's nothing to disclose, I do not have an interest," the mayor told CBC News citing the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act which stipulates elected officials only have to declare conflicts when considering matters involving parents, spouses or children — not siblings.
The mayor seemed surprised to learn her brother was even involved in the project. "I asked him if he was working with the casino people or with any developers within our community regarding a casino and he had said he hadn't been," Cooper said.
Cooper bristled at news two citizens had filed complaints with the OPP over her voting on issues involving her brother.
"I go by reality. I have no conflict of interest. I'm not sure if you are questioning my morals. Certainly I have been sitting at the council table continually since 1997," Cooper said.
Deputy Mayor Rick Lloyd, a close family friend of Bonwick's, says he was never lobbied by Bonwick and was under no obligation to declare his ties.
"In a small community like Collingwood, we have numerous amount of people who are friends," Lloyd told CBC News. "We are now 19,000 [in population]. There's so many people I know, if I had to declare a conflict on every person I know, or everybody who came into my flower shop, my business, it would be totally impossible."
Coun. Chadwick who voted against hosting the casino says Bonwick never told him he was working for the casino proponents last fall
"I actually voted against it. So if he's a lobbyist for that, he's doing a fairly poor job because I voted against that idea," Chadwick told CBC News.
Bonwick told CBC News this week that he has severed ties with the Georgian Manor casino group and "at no time, in any way, shape or form" was he hired to lobby council.
The casino debate has been highly divisive in Collingwood and since November's vote rejecting an OLG slot facility, council has changed its mind and this week voted 8-1 to invite the OLG to consider an even bigger $100-million integrated resort casino complex in the community.
Bonwick hired by bidder ahead of utility sale
The citizens complaining to the OPP have also requested an examination of another major town decision involving the sale of their local power and water utility.
They complain of Paul Bonwick's involvement with PowerStream, the Ontario power company. Bonwick was hired on a monthly basis by PowerStream; and in January 2012, PowerStream successfully bought a 50 per cent share of Collingwood's public utility company, Collus, for $15 million.
The citizens question why PowerStream's $15-million purchase was accepted over a bid by Hydro One which was valued at $2 million higher.
Acting town CAO Ed Houghton told CBC News that PowerStream's projected growth and "recapitalization and debt to equity ratio" promised a better long-term return for taxpayers, and noted the sale was approved in an 8-0 vote by council.
But the police complainants are furious that no one on council declared any conflicts or publicly mentioned that Bonwick was involved with the successful bidder.
Chadwick at first insisted he had not voted on the Collus deal. When presented with town records showing he voted in favour of the sale, he told CBC News that when the vote took place he was not working for Bonwick.
"At the beginning of 2012 my contract had ended at the end of December, at the beginning of the year, for the first two months, I didn't do any work for him," Chadwick said.
Rookie Coun. Keith Hull says nothing has been proven and the OPP should be given time to do their work. But, he says the mayor and others on council could appease public concerns about transparency at town hall by simply recusing themselves when voting on matters involving people with whom they have close relationships.
"I would hope and I would think that if our mayor knew, or was aware that potentially her brother had involvement with some proponents looking to secure business from the municipality, that even though as per the letter of the law she doesn't have to disclose a conflict because there isn't one, for the law, that ethically and morally she would come forward and say I have a conflict," Hull said.
The OPP anti-rackets branch won’t discuss its investigation.
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