Whistleblower alleges Steve Ashton caught in conflict of interest
A complaint filed under the province's Whistleblower Protection Act alleges Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation Steve Ashton was in a possible conflict of interest by awarding a contract to a distributor that has contributed to his electoral campaigns.
The complainant has remained anonymous, but the provincial ombudsman began investigating the complaint last year, saying that the allegations are unproven, but "are serious matters that would meet the threshold of what would be considered to be 'wrongdoing' under provincial law."
The whistleblower said that in July 2014 the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council (IRTC) had a commitment from the Manitoba government to fund a $5-million purchase of flood protection dams with a specific company.
In November, former acting ombudsman Mel Holley wrote to Milton Sussman, the clerk of the executive council, saying it was alleged that Steve Ashton made the funding commitment but that it had not been approved by Treasury Board.
It was also alleged the purchasing commitment was made without a tendering process and that the minister influenced the selection of the contracting company.
The letter said the invoice for the intended purchase of the dams was altered so that it would appear to be just a quote. That $5-million invoice was originally sent to the IRTC, but it was forwarded to the province for payment, the whistleblower alleged.
Ashton participated in a government news conference July 25, 2014 announcing funding for First Nations flood control, including a $5-million centre to house flood-fighting equipment.
'Found nothing to proceed on'
Rachel Morgan, Ashton's press secretary, said in an email Wednesday that "In November, the ombudsman looked into the allegations of incorrect tendering and through discussions with [Sussman] found nothing to proceed on."
The province then issued a request for proposals (RFP) Dec. 19, 2014, inviting suppliers to bid.
"Appropriate tendering was conducted and the RFP remains open and online on the MERX [tendering] website," Morgan said.
She said the province did not put up any money for the IRTC flood control purchase, but on March 23 this year, the federal government did provide $5 million.
'The government is incompetent': Pallister
"We have been making the case and the government has been helping us with the case for some time that the government is incompetent," Pallister said.
Senior NDP sources told CBC News the whistleblower allegations were at the heart of a dispute between five rebel cabinet ministers and Premier Greg Selinger last fall.
Ashton dismissed that idea today.
"I might describe this as kind of an aftershock of the leadership," said Ashton.
"Whatever happened in November I can tell you, don't you think that if this was the reason behind what happened that somebody might have mentioned it in November, December, January, February? Up until March 8th? I think they would have," said Ashton.
Selinger hung on to the leadership after a convention March 8 in which he was challenged by Ashton and Theresa Oswald.
One senior NDP source told CBC News that "ministers made the decision to not make public all this at the start, because they didn't want to bring down the party. And they thought Theresa would win."
Ashton also denied he brokered a deal to buy the flood dams for Interlake First Nations.
He said the province did put out a request for proposals but hasn't yet made a decision on who will be awarded the contract.