John Risley downplays concerns about flying Stephenville town councillors on his private jet
Political scientist Russell Williams says trip was a conflict of interest for councillors
The billionaire businessman pushing to build a massive wind farm and hydrogen project on Newfoundland's west coast is defending the decision to fly members of Stephenville's town council on his private jet.
"Do I think it's a big story? No, I don't. I had empty seats on the airplane. The airplane was flying back with those empty seats. Doesn't cost me one extra cent to put a bum in that seat," John Risley said in an interview this week with Radio-Canada.
"We've got a business relationship with the town, as you know, signed an agreement with them, and we were delighted to offer them those empty seats."
Risley was reacting to a CBC Investigates story that revealed details of the flight.
Earlier this fall, three members of Stephenville town council and the town manager flew back from a conference in Europe on a private jet owned by Risley.
The company Risley chairs, World Energy GH2, wants to build wind farms and produce green hydrogen in the Stephenville-Port au Port area.
So was the Hamburg flight a one-off? Has Risley offered politicians flights on his jet before?
"No, I don't. Generally speaking, politicians would not accept an offer from me to fly on my airplane and I generally wouldn't make it," Risley said.
"I don't see these folks as being sort of politicians in the general sense of things. These are people who are giving their time to their community. These positions are largely volunteer in nature."
Political scientist Russell Williams said he appreciates Risley's honesty in making those comments, but indicated public officials are supposed to have better ethical judgment.
"A mayor, council members, a senior public servant in the municipality, they are not people that should be taking rides on that plane," said Williams, an associate professor at Memorial University in St. John's.
"They're not volunteers. They have serious responsibilities in this case, and we all know that Mr. Risley is trying to do business with Stephenville on a number of files. So no, they shouldn't be on his plane."
According to Williams, the issue goes beyond optics.
"I would go a step further and actually say that it's an explicit conflict of interest and probably violates the existing legislation for those officials," he said.
"They simply cannot take a gift like that and then continue to involve themselves in representing the community of Stephenville and their dealings with Mr. Risley. That's a conflict of interest."
Stephenville Mayor Tom Rose previously told CBC News he is "100 per cent comfortable" with the decision to fly on the private jet.
He said it saved the town thousands of dollars and there was no personal gain.
"This is purely economic development, and it's billionaire companies that are coming in to spend $12 billion," Rose said earlier this week. "And we need to capitalize on that and we need to build relationships."
Williams said that was an "interesting" defence.
"He seems to have no awareness of what his ethical responsibilities are here," Williams said.
Municipal codes of conduct required by March
The provincial government recently enacted legislation that will require all municipalities to establish their own codes of conduct by the beginning of March.
Stephenville officials did not respond to messages from CBC News about the status of those efforts there.
But there is no reference to the code of conduct in published council meeting minutes since the new law came into force three months ago.
The province has published a sample template online that municipalities can use as a guide as they develop their own codes of conduct.
It includes a section about councillors being "prohibited from accepting gifts, favours, or free or discounted services from any individual, vendor, contractor or others which could reasonably be perceived to show undue favour, bias, or disadvantage to any individual or organization or could reasonably be perceived to place the councillor in a conflict of interest."
Williams said that language would apply to the flight situation.
"I think it's quite clear," he said.
With files from Patrick Butler
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