Manitoba's Opposition Tories want Premier Greg Selinger to remove Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton from cabinet after a report by the ombudsman said the province "lacked sufficient justification" to buy $5 million in flood-fighting tubes known as Tiger Dams.
Civil servants were directed to waive the competitive tendering process for the purchase of Tiger Dams in 2014 for the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council, says the report by Manitoba ombudsman Charlene Paquin, released on Thursday.
The report also found that Ashton directed staff to prepare a submission recommending the purchase, and senior civil servants had expressed concern about the government's plan.
"Ultimately, this case is a cautionary tale; a reminder that the civil service and elected officials need to work together for the common goal of providing fair, accountable service to the public," the report states in part.
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The ombudsman's investigation was launched after a whistleblower alleged Ashton was in a conflict of interest when his department awarded the contract to a company represented in Manitoba by a friend of Ashton.
Instead of accepting bids from multiple contractors or looking at other equipment, the government initially was intent on buying Tiger Dams from a specific company.
That company was International Flood Control Corp., which is represented in Manitoba by Peter Ginakes, a friend of Ashton who, in the past, has contributed to both Ashton's and the NDP's election campaigns.
Paquin said her office does not have the legislative authority to review political decisions, so the focus of her investigation was on administrative processes.
However, she said in her report that there are many questions about why the government wanted to avoid opening the contract to bidding from other companies.
The report notes that elected officials, including Ashton, provided direction and made commitments to the project that "did complicate the administrative process that followed."
But the report also says proper procedures were followed in the end, when Ashton was overruled by other cabinet ministers.
'It's a broken government,' Tories say
The Opposition Progressive Conservatives, who have grilled the NDP for months over the untendered Tiger Dam contract, accused the government of ignoring civil servants' professional advice and concerns about purchasing the flood-fighting gear.
"We certainly think it's disrespectful," Opposition House leader Kelvin Goertzen told reporters on Thursday.
"It's another sign that this government has lost trust with people. It's another sign it's lost trust with the civil service, and it's a broken government."
Goertzen said Ashton acted unethically and was "determined to award this contract to a specific vendor and through an untendered contract." He called on Selinger to consider removing Ashton from cabinet.
Ashton has denied any wrongdoing, and has said he was simply trying to secure needed equipment for flood-prone First Nations communities.
Province says it accepts recommendations
The province says it has agreed to all seven recommendations the report makes to improve the government's procurement policy.
"While this report finds that legislation and policies were followed, we feel that acting on the recommendations made by the Manitoba Ombudsman will strengthen transparency and accountability when it comes to government procurement," government House Leader Dave Chomiak said in a news release.
"In fact, we have already completed or started to act on 100 per cent of the recommendations."
The recommendations include:
- Clarifying policy so departments receive adequate guidelines for working with external partners.
- Developing requests for proposals and declaring any potential conflicts of interest.
- Clarifying the role of the government's Procurement Services Branch (PSB).
- Ensuring written policy sets expectation for when departments should consult the PSB in the procurement process.
The opposition Progressive Conservatives, which have grilled the NDP for months over the untendered Tiger Dam contract, will comment on the ombudsman's report at noon Thursday.
Read the Manitoba Ombudsman's full report here:
A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted the Manitoba ombudsman as saying the provincial government's bid to issue an untendered contract on flood-fighting Tiger Dams "lacked sufficient jurisdiction." In fact, a news release from the ombudsman's office says it "lacked sufficient justification."Jan 15, 2016 3:09 PM CT
A previous version of this story said a whistleblower alleged that Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton was in a conflict of interest when his department awarded the contract to a company owned by Ashton's friend. In fact, the friend is a representative of the company in Manitoba.Jan 07, 2016 2:05 PM CT