Nfld. & Labrador

This Corner Brook lawyer says the Liberals broke the law. The Liberals say otherwise.

Graham Watton says the Dwight Ball government ignored its own public procurement laws in awarding the contract for the new Fisheries and Land Resources building.

Company that won government contract never bid properly in the first place, says Graham Watton

Graham Watton is a lawyer in Corner Brook, who has taken his issues with an RFP in the city public. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

A lawyer and longtime Liberal supporter in Corner Brook is lashing out at the party, accusing government of breaking its own public procurement laws in handing out the contract for a new Fisheries and Land Resources building in the city.

Then-minister Gerry Byrne, announced on Aug. 24, 2018, that Marine Contractors, a prominent construction company in Corner Brook, had won the bid to provide the department's new office space on Wheeler's Road.

It's not a case of sour grapes.- Graham Watton

Close to the future site of the city's new hospital, it was a move the province touted as streamlining its operations and saving taxpayer money.

But Graham Watton, the legal counsel for one of the companies that lost the bid, contends there was serious trouble with that bid — trouble that began months before.

Specifically, at 3:05 p.m. on April 16, 2018.

'Ignored' rules, lawyer says

At that time, Watton, along with three civil servants, was in a boardroom of Confederation Building in St. John's. The deadline for bids on the request for proposals (RFP) had just passed, and as per the regulations, the envelope containing the bids was then opened, and the bidding company names read aloud and recorded.

Watton said he jotted down all the bids read out, eight in total. Marine Contractors was not among them.

"If you don't have your bid on the particular day in question, then you're disqualified. But here in this particular case, the government ignored it," he said.

The tender report from the Department of Transportation and Works posted online lists seven bids from four different companies, including Marine Contractors.

Watton said that doesn't line up with what he witnessed in the room.

"What the government did, they broke the law. They gave the contract to Marine Contractors, a $20-million contract, and then they did everything to hide what they did to the public," he said.

The Fisheries and Land Resources building is currently under construction on Wheeler's Road in Corner Brook. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Proper procedures followed: gov't

The department has maintained to CBC that nothing went awry, and that seven bids, including Marine Contractors', were received by the RFP closing date.

In an email, a spokesperson wrote: "the Department of Transportation and Works followed proper procedures and the successful proposal was received in accordance with the terms of the RFP."  

The email did not specify whether Marine Contractors' name was read aloud, despite CBC asking for an explanation. 

"I can tell you there is absolutely no evidence of any substance whatsoever to what Mr. Watton has said," Gerry Byrne told CBC News while on the campaign trail.

Watton is not only legal counsel for Noton Enterprises, the company that failed to secure the contract — it's also his wife's company, which held the previous contract leasing office space to the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources.

"It's not a case of sour grapes," he said.

"We're talking about the principles of accountability, we talk about principles of transparency, openness, fairness. This is our whole tendering system, this is the public procurement system we're talking about."

Marine Contractors, a prominent Corner Brook construction company, was announced as the successful bidder on the building RFP in August. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

No Liberal loyalty

In the months following the public opening of the bids, when Watton said he realized Marine Contractors was in the RFP running, Watton wrote again and again to the civil servants involved, as well as to government ministers and even the premier, demanding answers.

That escalated when the election was called: The Telegram published an open letter from Watton about the issue, and he left a more detailed version under cars' windshield wipers around Corner Brook.

Watton — who himself ran for the Liberals in the 1985 election — said any loyalty to the premier or party does "not trump the rule of law." He noted that Dwight Ball's Liberals overhauled the provincial public procurement system in March to make it more transparent and accountable.

"The government made the law," he said, "they broke the law."

Byrne acknowledged that Watton has been among the party faithful, but said if Watton has an issue with the RFP, it should play out in court.

"He has not taken this to a court of law, he's decided instead to take it to a court of public opinion," said Byrne.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Anthony Germain