Role of premier's office in property tax controversy, headed to legislature

The office of New Brunswick Opposition leader Blaine Higgs says it is still planning to make a motion in the legislature next week to compel Premier Brian Gallant's chief of staff Jordan O'Brien, former Service New Brunswick CEO Gordon Gilman and former director of assessment modernization Rene Landry to appear and give evidence on the origins of the province's property tax controversy.

Opposition planning to make a motion to find out where the property tax controversy started

Even after a full auditor general investigation and report — there are still holes in what is known about how the property assessment trouble started (Daniel McHardie/CBC)

The office of New Brunswick Opposition leader Blaine Higgs says it is still planning to make a motion in the legislature next week to compel Premier Brian Gallant's chief of staff Jordan O'Brien, former Service New Brunswick CEO Gordon Gilman and former director of assessment modernization Rene Landry to give evidence on the origins of the province's property tax controversy. 

"I can confirm [that]," Official Opposition director of communications Bob Fowlie said in an email to CBC News Monday about the rare manoeuvre.

Even after a full auditor general investigation and report — there are still holes in what is known about how the property assessment trouble started, including why the story told by the premier's office about its role in the origin of what happened appears to have changed over time.

"We have inconsistency here," Higgs said last week in proposing to force appearances from those who hold the final pieces of information on what caused the tax controversy so they can tell what they know.

Auditor General Kim MacPherson has blamed the property tax controversy on a badly mishandled implementation of a decision to fast track the adoption of a new assessment system two years ahead of schedule.

"Fast track failed," she said simply.

Decision details still fuzzy

MacPherson traced the decision to fast track to May 6, 2016, the day Premier Brian Gallant was given a demonstration of new aerial photography technology used in the assessment system. The mechanics of how that triggered the decision to accelerate its adoption remains fuzzy.

"When the premier came back [from the demonstration] he had a conversation with his chief of staff and asked the chief of staff to follow up [with the president of Service New Brunswick] but it wasn't to do with fast track," MacPherson told MLAs last Thursday.

Premier Brian Gallant's chief of staff Jordan O'Brien has provided two versions of what the premier was concerned about after being given a demonstration of new aerial photography technology used in the assessment system. (Facebook)

"What we were told is the premier's concern was around what the public's reaction was going to be because it's likely that when aerial photography is rolled out assessments were going to increase. [He wanted to know] whether they had thought through more of the communication aspects of the implications of rolling this out."

According to what MacPherson's office was told, Gallant had O'Brien call Service New Brunswick CEO Gordon Gilman to impress upon him the importance of clearly explaining to the public how aerial photography would be used to help set property tax bills and somehow during that or subsequent conversations the topic veered off into a plan to speed the entire project up.

"It was clear when the chief of staff spoke to him [Gilman] on May 6 it was at the premier's request to follow up but it was an issue not to fast track based on what we were told. It was about the public reaction to aerial photography," MacPherson said.

No explanations for changing stories

The story had a couple of problems.  

It did not explain how the premier's concern about public reaction to aerial photography led to fast tracking the new system and it differed from an earlier version of the story in which the premier was said to be worried about something else entirely.

Last April, just days after details of New Brunswick's property tax scandal first became known O'Brien wrote an email to CBC News to dispute claims the premier's office had been involved in the origins of the controversy.

O'Brien explained in his note that the previous spring Gallant had attended a demonstration of new assessment technology Service New Brunswick was preparing to adopt  and the premier later came back to the office with a concern.  

The agency, he told O'Brien, was talking about speeding up adoption of the new assessment system.

'He expressed concerns'

"At the event, in the presence of media, the premier received a briefing on the property assessment modernization project," said O'Brien in the email.

"After having had a discussion with the premier about this meeting, he mentioned to me that he has heard about the property assessment modernization project and that they had been discussing moving it more quickly. He expressed concerns to me that this could be a political issue if a lot of assessments went up."

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson says based on the evidence, her office could not determine whether Brian Gallant requested a fast track of the assessment system. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

In the version of events outlined by O'Brien in that note last spring Premier Gallant knew about a plan in the works at Service New Brunswick to speed up the introduction of a new assessment system and wanted O'Brien to check on it. 

That version was repeated in an almost identical email O'Brien then sent to the Telegraph Journal later that week and in a phone interview he gave CBC News.

"To the best of my recollection the premier was at an event in early May last year, was presented this project and they said they had an option to accelerate it and the premier had me ask some questions on his behalf about whether that was responsible and whether it made sense."

When did story change

There has been no explanation why that first story — that the premier came back from the assessment demonstration concerned with talk the new system might move "more quickly" — eventually changed to the premier coming back from the demonstration concerned with how the public might react to aerial photography.  

Both stories ended with Gallant having O'Brien call Gordon Gilman. And although each story had a different reason the call was made, the call itself somehow ended in the birth of fast track, according to MacPherson.

There are two stories of what Premier Brian Gallant was concerned over when it came to the implementation of the new property assessment. (Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press)

"We gathered sufficient corroborating evidence to conclude it was the demonstration to the Premier and subsequent exchanges between the Premier's Chief of Staff and SNB's former CEO that started the chain of events that led to 'Fast Track,'"  MacPherson said in an email to CBC News Monday.

MacPherson said she had "access" to the emails sent to the media last spring for her investigation but would not comment on different reasons put out by the premier's office for why Brian Gallant had Jordan O'Brien make the first call to Gordon Gilman.

"We had access to e-mails including the one quoted in your correspondence," she wrote.

"Based on our evidence, we could not determine the Premier requested 'Fast Track'."

The Premier's office did not reply to a request for comment. 

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.