Long-time Saskatchewan political columnist Murray Mandryk says ordinarily Premier Brad Wall loves talking to reporters so much that "quite often we can't bloody well get his scrums to end."
Yet during this session of the legislature, Wall has abruptly and uncharacteristically walked away from media scrums when faced with questions about an ongoing controversy that's come to be known as the "GTH land deal."
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"It's a relative rarity to see politicians in this province do that," said Mandryk, a columnist with the Regina Leader-Post. "That's not how they're cut and that's certainly not how Brad Wall was cut."
In February, CBC Saskatchewan's iTeam broke the story of a controversial land purchase by the Global Transportation Hub. The GTH is a government-owned transportation and logistics facility on the edge of Regina.
Wall was re-elected a couple months later with an overwhelming majority. For years polls have found Wall to be Canada's most popular premier. He's often registering support in the 60-70 per cent range.
But since that election, his popularity appears to have taken a hit. An October poll indicated Wall was no longer the most popular, and his approval rating was hovering around 50 per cent.
While the reason for the apparent decline is unclear, Mandryk said tumbling resource revenues and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's carbon tax announcement have made life increasingly difficult for the premier and his government.
But Mandryk said the land deal issue is the "centrepiece of their problems and simply because of the nature of it."
He said every day during this session of the legislature, the opposition NDP has been asking questions about the "suspicions around the GTH and that individuals might have profited from the particular deal."
Mandryk said in its nine years in office, Wall's government has never faced a thorny problem like this.
2 businessmen with Sask. Party connections made millions
Earlier this year CBC Saskatchewan broke the story of a mysterious series of land transactions that saw a couple of businessmen make millions.
In 2014, the GTH bought 204 acres from a Regina developer for $21 million. That's $103,000 per acre, two to three times more than the government's own appraisals said the land was worth.
The developer, a well-heeled donor to Wall's Saskatchewan Party, made about $5 million on the sale. He told CBC that the purchase was just a normal business transaction.
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Yet three years earlier, the government bought land in the same area from a group of nuns, the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, under threat of expropriation for $11,000 per acre.
This curious contrast was not lost on the NDP.
"Eleven thousand dollars an acre for the nuns; $103,000 for the well-connected businessmen," said NDP interim leader Trent Wotherspoon. "Why did those businessmen get the royal treatment from this government — the Sask. Party government — with a sweetheart deal? And what does [Wall] have to say, what does he have to say to the nuns?"
That was just one in a series of rapid and mysterious sales that saw the land value spike from $15,000 an acre to $103,000 an acre in just a year and a half.
One of those mysterious sales involved an Alberta businessman, Robert Tappauf, whose family owns tens of thousands of acres in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Tappauf's family rents thousands of acres of farmland to Bill Boyd, who was the minister responsible for the GTH at the time of the sale.
Tappauf made $6 million on the sale of the same land as it quickly soared in price.
Both Boyd and Tappauf say they have never met and have never spoken to each other. And Boyd has insisted he didn't use his position to assist Tappauf.
Nuns, Canadian Taxpayers Federation raise concerns
The head of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, Veronica Dunne, said she finds the whole thing suspicious.
"Knowing what I know now it seems like there was from the beginning there must have been a plot, a larger plan than just getting our land," Dunne said. "Somehow our land was part of a scheme to make a windfall out of these particular parcels of land."
The series of transactions is puzzling to Todd MacKay with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, an organization that in many other circumstances has praised Wall's right-leaning government.
"We need a consistent, fulsome explanation on this one because it doesn't appear that simple market fluctuations are the issue here," MacKay said. "There's more to it."
Provincial auditor's scathing report
Days after CBC broke the story, Wall — under pressure from the NDP opposition — called on Saskatchewan's provincial auditor Judy Ferguson to investigate.
She found a host of problems. The GTH failed to have land-buying policies or a business plan for the transaction. It didn't keep key documentation and ended up paying too much for the land, buying it "not in a financially responsible manner." And, she said, Boyd was heavily involved in all aspects of the transaction.
Marc Tasse, an expert in forensic accounting from the University of Ottawa, says that the provincial auditor conducted what's known as a "process audit," aimed at learning if the GTH had the appropriate processes to manage such a purchase.
But he said only a forensic audit can uncover why all of these problems occurred and he's surprised the government hasn't ordered one.
"Did it result from mismanagement? Did it result from conflict of interest? Did it result from people trying to get their own benefits from it?" Tasse said. "We don't know because there was a process audit that was done."
Wall says no further investigation required
Speaking to reporters the day the auditor's report was released in June, Wall acknowledged his government made mistakes and that it accepts the auditor's recommendation. But in the legislature this fall, he insisted that no further investigation needed to be done, saying the auditor's report should be the final word.
"All the documents were made available to the provincial auditor. The auditor has made her conclusions," said Wall. "The conclusions included in the press release that accompanied the report, that there was no conflict of interest; there was no fraud; there was no wrongdoing by members of the board of directors."
Mandryk said, "You can say 'there's no wrongdoing' all you want in the house. Others will be the judge of that either formally or informally."
He pointed out that police have interviewed people about the GTH land deal in recent months as a result of several complaints.
Mandryk said Wall is in a difficult and unfamiliar spot with no clear exit strategy.
"These things have gone unanswered," he said, "and the longer that they go unanswered, I think the worse it is for any politician's legacy."