N.B. Liquor 'whistleblower' has 'alarming' information in Hartland case, lawyer says
Fired director of finance also has dozens of examples of improprieties at Crown corporation, court filings all
A former top N.B. Liquor official has come forward as a potential whistleblower to offer "alarming new information" about a lawsuit alleging "manipulation" of a lucrative contract by the corporation, court filings say.
A lawyer for a Hartland businessperson who lost a lucrative contract for an agency store in the town says the information "directly contradicts" evidence filed by N.B. Liquor so far.
N.B. Liquor has responded with a court filing that publicly identifies the former official as Stacey McKinney, the former director of finance at the Crown corporation.
McKinney was challenging her firing from N.B. Liquor before the Hartland decision was made. Her lawyer told the corporation in March that she had information on more than 34 examples of "financial, ethical and illegal irregularities" there.
No whistleblower status
The corporation argues McKinney is not entitled to whistleblower status, a protection available to provincial employees, because she has yet to disclose any information under the Public Interest Disclosure Act.
That act, nicknamed the whistleblower protection law, says it exists "to facilitate the disclosure and investigation of significant and serious matters in or relating to the public service that are potentially unlawful, dangerous to the public or injurious to the public interest."
McKinney was fired by N.B. Liquor in June 2020. She says it happened just before she finalized audits of N.B. Liquor that would "impact the legitimacy" of its financial statements.
In a grievance, she says she'd been recommended for a leave of absence because of illness but was fired without cause instead.
In March 2021, her lawyer Joel Etienne told N.B. Liquor that McKinney had tried to report the more than 34 cases of improprieties to the audit committee of the corporation's board of directors.
They included financial reporting discrepancies, "inappropriate" expense claims and "financial control weaknesses" that pointed to possible "misstatements" in the corporation's financial statements.
Etienne's letter alleged that the "main culprits" behind the financial improprieties attempted to eliminate McKinney's position and her department by outsourcing the work to a private accounting firm.
"As this matter is currently before the courts, we have no comment at this time," N.B. Liquor spokesperson Marie-Andrée Bolduc in an emailed statement.
McKinney is still challenging her firing. That legal case is unrelated to the lawsuit over the Hartland agency store.
Information relevant to Hartland agency store court case
But last week Fredericton lawyer Erica Brown wrote to the court to say she had learned "out of the blue" that McKinney, who she didn't name, had information relevant to the case.
Brown represents Hartland businessperson Peter Cook, who had the N.B. Liquor agency store contract at his Freshmart grocery store in the town from 2019 until this spring.
That's when it was awarded in a new bidding process to a Valu Foods store and Irving gas station.
Cook, a well-known Liberal supporter, alleges that N.B. Liquor's politically appointed board of directors headed by prominent Progressive Conservative and one-time Irving Oil employee John Correia influenced the scoring of the bidding process.
"It was either manipulated on purpose, which I believe, or if nothing else, it's pure incompetence," Cook said recently. "I was cheated."
N.B. Liquor says in an affidavit that Correia's "previous or current roles with ANBL or other companies had no effect" on Cook scoring lower and losing the bid.
A hearing in the Hartland agency store case is scheduled for Tuesday morning in the Court of Queen's Bench in Fredericton.
Brown says in her Nov. 1 letter filed to the court that she has been "stonewalled" by N.B. Liquor in attempting to get information from the corporation on its decision. In the motion to be heard Tuesday, she asks for more time to gather evidence.
The letter says two lawyers representing McKinney, Etienne and Christian Michaud, will "soon" file a formal complaint under the whistleblowing law.
In a separate letter, Michaud points out he is a former member of the N.B. Liquor board and says he is "gravely concerned by the lack of compliance with basic governance principles in this matter."
N.B. Liquor responded with its motion asking Brown to produce the "alarming new information" and saying the whistleblower law does not apply to McKinney, putting her name into the public record for the first time.
Michaud declined an interview request Monday.
The Public Interest Disclosure Act, passed in 2012, allows potential whistleblowers to flag improprieties to a designated person in their own department or organization, or to the provincial ombud.
Law not used much in small province
In 2017, Ombud Charles Murray told CBC News that the legislation is rarely used and speculated it's because in a small province people fear being easily identified.
At the time he called for a 'blind contact' provision to be added to the law to allow someone to contact his office through an intermediary so that even he doesn't know who it is.
"A whistleblower in this province has to be fairly courageous and has to take things on faith," he said.
Murray would not say Monday whether he was involved in McKinney's case.
"Any whistleblower protection scheme has at its centre the protection of the identity of any person(s) who come forward, and as such we never confirm or deny whether we have received or are investigating any disclosure made to us under PIDA," he said.