Edmonton MLA lobbied to benefit own home-building company

Edmonton MLA Peter Sandhu aggressively lobbied ministers and department officials for changes to a provincial law which would benefit his financially troubled home-building company

Peter Sandhu acted unethically, but not illegally, critics say

MLA Peter Sandhu declined to be interviewed by CBC News but instead emailed a statement. (CBC)

Edmonton MLA Peter Sandhu aggressively lobbied ministers and department officials for changes to a provincial law which would benefit his financially troubled home-building company.

NDs, Wildrose call for wider probe

The New Democrats and Wildrose have written separate letters to Alberta's ethics commissioner asking for an expanded investigation into Peter Sandhu's conduct.

"It is against the law for an MLA to use their position to attempt to influence a decision that could benefit their own private interests," ND leader Brian Mason said in a news release.

Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw called on commissioner Neil Wilkinson to "investigate all matters related to this troubling case because on the surface it clearly suggests ethical lines were crossed."

Critics say Sandhu’s lobbying, while not illegal, raises serious ethical questions and highlights the need for Alberta to strengthen its conflicts of interest legislation.

Internal Service Alberta documents and court documents, show Sandhu lobbied for the changes to the Builders’ Lien Act during a period of time when he was being sued for failing to pay debts incurred by NewView Homes, his family’s home-building company.

The internal documents, obtained through Freedom of Information, and public records, also clearly show Sandhu was lobbying specifically in his own interest.

In fact, the internal documents reveal Sandhu convinced Service Alberta to conduct an investigation related to a lien filed against NewView Homes.

In a Feb. 17, 2012 email, assistant deputy minister Janet Skinner details a meeting between Sandhu, several senior department bureaucrats, and Emir Mehinagic, the executive assistant to Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar.

"After much discussion about the Builders’ Lien Act, the actions arising from the discussion were (that) Mr. Sandhu (is) to speak with the president of the Home Builders’ Association. He will ask whether the (association) is of the same opinion that he is – that the act now favours  the trades over the builders," Skinner wrote, adding later in the email that Sandhu also wanted the department to regulate trades people.

"Lastly, we agreed to investigate the one case of a lien he brought forward that he believed to be frivolous. All-in-all, a reasonable outcome," Skinner wrote.

Sandhu demands action from minister

On Feb. 15, 2012, two days before Skinner issued her email, Sandhu aggressively pressured Bhullar to act on the lien issue during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Finance, even though the issue was unrelated to the committee’s work.

According to committee minutes, Sandhu asks Bhullar: "You know, some of those lien acts are about 30 years old. When are you going to review the act? It has got to be fair for the  businesspeople and labour."

Duff Conacher from Democracy Watch believes that federal and provincial governments need to toughen up their conflict of interest acts. (CBC)

Bhullar tells the committee he has informed Sandhu he would be happy to facilitate discussions between representatives of the home-building industry and his departmental staff. Bhullar’s non-committal answer did not satisfy Sandhu.

"Well I just want to make sure that after the meeting action is taken, that it is not just lip talk and over with after 10 minutes of discussion," Sandhu tells the committee. "I want action."

Sandhu again met with Bhullar’s executive assistant, Emir Mehinagic, and several senior department officials on March 16, 2012 to press the issue.

"Mr. Sandhu remains adamant that the Act does need to be opened up," senior department official Curtis Woollard writes in a March 19, 2012 email. But Woollard said Sandhu was again told he must obtain a letter of support from the home builders’ association for his proposed changes in order to trigger a review of the Builders’ Lien Act.

"It was made clear the purpose of the review would not be to tip the balance in such a way that legitimate lien claimants were robbed of an important tool to realize on proper claims for payment, but the purpose would be to curtail ‘nuisance liens," Woollard wrote.

"We await the letter from the association."

The Alberta branch of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association told CBC News it did not provide Sandhu with a letter of support.

Service Alberta resisted lobbying

Nothing in the documents indicate Service Alberta took any action related to the issues raised by Sandhu. To the contrary, the documents show the department believed it had already achieved an acceptable balance between the competing interests.

"The problem with amending the Builders’ Lien Act is that it is a zero sum game between these competing interests," state key messages prepared for Bhullar on Jan. 31, 2013.

"Any efforts by one group to make amendments that are viewed as helpful are typically met with strong opposition by another affected group. Accordingly, the Act is very difficult to amend."

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman calls Sandhu's lobbying 'totally inappropriate.' (CBC)

Bhullar was unavailable for comment.

Sandhu declined to be interviewed, but in an emailed statement he said it was no secret that he has "long advocated on behalf of the many Albertans affected by the outdated lien act." He did not address the allegation that he inappropriately lobbied for changes that would benefit his own company.

Sandhu resigned from the Conservative caucus on May 14 after a CBC News investigation revealed his history of failing to pay the debts of his company, and the fact that he filed a false affidavit in a civil court case.

The investigation also revealed Sandhu had not disclosed his debts to the office of Alberta’s ethics commissioner, which is now conducting an investigation.

As revealed in the previous CBC News investigation, NewView Homes and Sandhu had been sued by several companies for unpaid debts. Court documents show the lawsuits were filed during at least part of the period Sandhu was lobbying for changes to the Builders’ Lien Act.

Lobbying not illegal: expert

CBC News showed the internal Service Alberta documents to Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch, a non-profit organization which has publicly called for the strengthening of provincial and federal conflicts of interests acts.

"I think it is clear from his actions that Mr. Sandhu thinks it is perfectly fine that, although he was elected by voters, he is actually there in part to be serving himself and his own interests, over the public interest," Conacher said.

But Conacher said Sandhu did nothing wrong under Alberta’s Conflicts of Interests Act, which, like every other conflicts act in the country, effectively allows politicians to lobby in their own interest.

"Even though the conflicts of interest law for provincial politicians allows them to lobby for their own interests, it is clearly unethical to do so, and dangerously undemocratic because, essentially, it means that elected politicians can be inside government lobbyists, pushing their own—and other people’s—interests," Conacher said.

Alberta’s Conflicts of Interest Act is now being reviewed by a special committee. Edmonton Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, a committee member, said Sandhu’s "very aggressive lobbying" in his own interest was "totally inappropriate."

But Blakeman also found it troubling that ministers and senior government officials thought it was appropriate to allow Sandhu to lobby them for his own personal interest.

"It shows you how politicized the upper management in government has become; politicized to the point where they are going to please their masters, whether it is appropriate behaviour for a bureaucrat or not," Blakeman said.

Sandhu lobbied several ministers

The documents appear to show Sandhu did not limit his lobbying to Bhullar and his senior bureaucrats, he also lobbied other ministers and a Service Alberta investigator. In a March 18, 2013 email, investigator Lee Chantal tells his superiors of a conversation he had with Sandhu during an investigation of a contractor.

"His other, larger, concern is over the Builders’ Lien Act, which he feels is being used today as blackmail by labourers/trades," Chantal wrote.

"He mentioned having conversations with Minister Bhullar and Minister Klimchuk, when she was (Service Alberta) Minister, about this, as well as with Minister Olson when he was Minister of Justice.

"(Sandhu) feels this needs to be changed or repealed as it so easily abused, based on his company’s experience as a homebuilder."

Chantal said Sandhu then asked for the name of his director after he told Sandhu he had no influence to change the legislation.

Blakeman said Sandhu’s inappropriate lobbying highlights the need to revise Alberta’s Conflicts of Interest Act.

"I think there is a credibility and trust problem right now with the public, because each one of these that comes up, the public paints all politicians, on all levels—municipal, provincial, and federal—with the same brush," Blakeman said, adding that the only way to restore public credibility, "is by making sure that our legislation is strong enough to be able to be used in these types of situations."