Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

'I was there through this whole process,' says premier of GTH land deal

Premier Brad Wall said it's no surprise that his chief of staff, Joe Donlevy, knew about Global Transportation Hub land deal negotiations at the very start because this was and is "one of the most important economic development projects for the government."

Premier’s office says it doesn’t know who decided GTH would lead land purchase

Premier Brad Wall answered questions about the role of his office in the GTH land deal following Question Period Monday. (CBC)

Premier Brad Wall said it's no surprise that his chief of staff, Joe Donlevy, knew about Global Transportation Hub land deal negotiations at the very start because this was and is "one of the most important economic development projects for the government."

Wall said he and his office were paying careful attention.

"I was there through this whole process I know what was intended and what wasn't," he said Monday.

Earlier this week, CBC reported that in early November 2013, Donlevy was notified as negotiations began between then-GTH minister Bill Boyd's senior advisor Laurie Pushor and the man who owned 204 acres of land near the GTH, Anthony Marquart.

The government-owned GTH ended up paying Marquart $103,000 an acre for the land, far more than government appraisals said it was worth.

At the same time Pushor was negotiating with Marquart, the Ministry of Highways was standing by ready to purchase or expropriate the land from Marquart for $30,000 to $35,000 an acre.

In her review of the GTH land deal, Saskatchewan's provincial auditor found that Boyd and Pushor didn't tell the GTH board and management about the negotiations. They left Highways in the dark, too. 

Critics have wondered why Donlevy didn't direct Boyd and Pushor to loop in Highways and have it buy the land, given that would have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

Wall concedes government failed to co-ordinate purchase

Wall said that after CBC raised the issue, he asked Donlevy about why he didn't direct Boyd and Pushor to co-ordinate with Highways. The premier said Donlevy believed the men had already done that.

That's where our government didn't get it right: You had two arms of government that weren't communicating.- Premier Brad Wall

"He wouldn't have thought that the two weren't co-operating and talking," the premier said.

"He assumed that all of government knew what was going on in terms of land acquisition."

The premier added that the provincial auditor, who reviewed the GTH land deal, including cabinet documents, found the government failed to properly co-ordinate the purchase.

"The auditor's been pretty clear, if you look at the recommendations, that that wasn't happening," said Wall. "That's where our government didn't get it right: You had two arms of government that weren't communicating."
In 2013, Laurie Pushor was called on by then-GTH minister Bill Boyd to negotiate the purchase of 204 acres of land.

In fact, there were three arms of government that were working toward buying the same land at the same time: Pushor, as directed by Boyd, Highways and GTH management.

CBC pointed out to Wall that "Laurie Pushor is well aware that these other organizations are working towards buying the land."

Wall replied: "Right. This is the problem the auditor pointed out."

When asked why Pushor continued to negotiate when he knew Highways was working to buy the land, the premier said, "he's the chief of staff for the minister responsible for the GTH and so that's going to be his focus." (At the time of the negotiations, Pushor was actually Boyd's senior advisor, though in the past he had served as Boyd's chief of staff.)

Who directed GTH to buy land?

An internal email CBC obtained shows that GTH officials were first informed on Dec. 6, 2013, that they would be buying the 204 acres.

The email, from chief operating officer Blair Wagar, said GTH CEO Bryan Richards "received news today that GTH will lead the purchase [of] the lands to the east of the current footprint. MHI [Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure] will then purchase what they need from us for the transportation infrastructure."

This email shows that on Dec 6, 2013, officials at the GTH were notified that their organization would lead the purchase of the 204 acres. (CBC News)

When asked which government official gave that direction, Wall said he didn't recall and would have to review the information.

In a follow-up email, about the issue of who directed the GTH to buy the land an official in the premier's office said "I am not certain. ... issues are brought to cabinet on several occasions as updates and decisions are made around the cabinet table. I assume the same for the situation here."

On Nov. 25, 2013, Pushor had asked to bring his "GTH interchange land acquisition proposal" before provincial cabinet's land buying committee. CBC asked the premier's office if that proposal was heard by the committee and, if so, what it decided about which agency would lead the purchase and pay for the land. 

CBC also asked which cabinet ministers are on that committee. 

The premier's office has failed to answer those questions. 

Committee questions GTH CEO

On Monday, the Saskatchewan legislature's Public Accounts Committee questioned GTH CEO Bryan Richards about his role in the deal.

In the fall of 2013, Richards and his officials were working toward buying the 204 acres. They had hired a land-buying agent and obtained an appraisal of the property.
Bryan Richards, CEO of the GTH, was questioned by the Public Accounts Committee on Monday.

Richards told the committee he had no idea that Pushor was negotiating with Marquart for the land in November 2013.

Cathy Sproule, an NDP member of the committee, asked Richards "were you aware at any point after you arrived in 2013 that the Ministry of Highways was in fact moving forward to acquire those lands?"

Richards replied, "No, I was not."

But CBC has an email that shows Richards knew Highways was appraising the land at the same time as the GTH. Wagar wrote to Richards about the appraisal they had just acquired.

"Curious to know what MHI's appraisals are at and if we have a gap," Wagar said.

When CBC brought this email to Richard's attention a GTH official responded, noting that "while this email references an appraisal by MHI, it does not show Bryan had knowledge MHI was moving forward to acquire those lands at that time. He stands by his statement yesterday."

The Opposition NDP said they have many more question for Richards and hope to have him back before the committee.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.

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