Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

Premier's right-hand man in the loop at start of GTH land deal negotiations

An email CBC's iTeam obtained through access to information shows that Joe Donlevy, Brad Wall’s long-time chief of staff, was notified in early Nov. 2013 as the mostly-secret GTH land deal negotiations began.

Bill Boyd left most people in the dark — but not premier's chief of staff

Joe Donlevy has been Premier Brad Wall's chief of staff since 2008.

One brief email CBC obtained through a freedom of information request is raising questions about the role of Premier Brad Wall's office in Global Transportation Hub land deal negotiations.

The email, sent to Wall's right-hand man Joe Donlevy, indicates the premier's office was in the loop at the very start of the mostly-secret negotiations.

Yet other key players were left in the dark. 

Donlevy, Wall's chief of staff since 2008, was sent the November 2013 email that kicked off the negotiations which saw the GTH buy 204 acres from a Regina developer for $103,000 an acre, which was two to three times more than government appraisals said it was worth.

Obviously very bad decisions were made here that cost taxpayers millions of dollars. We need to find out from those decision-makers what happened.- Todd MacKay , Canadian Taxpayers Federation

The developer, Anthony Marquart, made about $5 million on the deal.

Todd MacKay with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who's been closely following this story and filing access to information requests of his own, said the fact the premier's office knew about this deal early on raises some new questions.

"Obviously very bad decisions were made here that cost taxpayers millions of dollars. We need to find out from those decision-makers what happened," said MacKay. "Clearly some of those decisions were made in the premier's office because they knew what was going on. And ultimately the right decisions weren't made."

Donlevy looped in, others left out

In early November 2013, then-GTH minister Bill Boyd directed his senior advisor Laurie Pushor to negotiate a deal for the land with Marquart.

Pushor, who had previously served as Boyd's chief of staff, had a phone conversation with the Regina developer and on Nov. 10, 2013 Marquart responded with an email.

He provided Pushor with the legal description and size of the land. Marquart also presented some of his negotiating position.

He attached an appraisal that reportedly said some of the land was worth $129,000 an acre. He also included an article entitled 'Regina's industrial market hottest in Canada.'

The next day, Pushor forwarded that email to Boyd and Donlevy.

"I intend to call Anthony [Marquart] again tomorrow and see where we go from there," wrote Pushor to Boyd and Donlevy.

Joe Donlevy was notified early on that Laurie Pushor was starting GTH land deal negotiations with Anthony Marquart.
While Boyd and Pushor looped in the premier's office, the provincial auditor's review of the GTH land deal shows that Boyd kept others in the dark about the negotiations.

"He took the lead on the actual acquisition and the challenge was he didn't keep the [GTH] board informed. He didn't keep [GTH] management informed, and he didn't keep [the Ministry of] Highways informed," said Provincial Auditor Judy Ferguson in an interview.

Ken Rasmussen, an expert in government administration at the University of Regina says it's odd that political staff were in the loop but professional public servants weren't.

"On the surface of it it all kind of looks bad. I mean it all kind of smells kind of funny," said Rasmussen.

"It's not supposed to work that way. The public service is there to ensure that the kinds of things that happened, don't happen."

Why weren't Highways and GTH management in the loop?

It's puzzling that Boyd didn't inform the Ministry of Highways, since his primary reason for wanting the land was so the ministry could build an interchange on it. That series of ramps off of the planned West Regina Bypass would provide large trucks free-flow access, without a stoplight, into and out of the government-owned transportation and logistics facility.

At the very same time that Pushor was negotiating to buy Marquart's land for $103,000 an acre the Ministry of Highways was ready to contact Marquart to purchase or expropriate the 204 acres for one third that price; $30,000 to $35,000 an acre. An Oct. 28, 2013 email from a senior highways official said "I await the minister's direction before we start this process."
Ken Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Regina, wonders why the professional public service was left in the dark during GTH land deal negotiations. (CBC News)

Boyd also failed to alert GTH management of Pushor's negotiations. At the same time Highways officials were preparing to make Marquart an offer, GTH management was too. It also had obtained an appraisal and had hired a land buying agent who was getting set to contact Marquart.

Rasmussen said the fact that three government entities, the GTH, the Ministry of Highways and Pushor, were all poised to buy the same land at the same time is "probably one of the more ridiculous things you can possibly imagine."

"A small government in a small province with this kind of incoherence around a major financial transaction," said Rasmussen.

Rasmussen said Donlevy should have told Boyd and Pushor to follow traditional approaches to buying land, rather than going it alone.

"It looks like a bit of a rogue process," said Rasmussen. "And you would have thought they would have said 'Now is the time to get the coordination of the various professional staff.'"

Mackay said the most puzzling aspect of the land deal is that the GTH bought the 204 acres instead of the Ministry of Highways.
The prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, Todd MacKay, wonders why the GTH was directed to buy the land rather than the Ministry of Highways. (CBC)

"Why was the premier's office OK with it going through the minister's office," wondered MacKay. "Why wasn't the premier's office redirecting this deal to go through Highways where, again, they've got the competency and the policy tools to handle a transaction like this?"

Until this point the ministry had purchased or expropriated all land for the West Regina Bypass. It had also purchased or expropriated all the land for the initial GTH footprint. But this time the GTH was taking the lead.

"We don't know who decided that GTH would make the purchase and we don't know why," said MacKay. "Perhaps there's a good reason, but I can't think of it. And ultimately the result is taxpayers are out millions of dollars."

Premier acknowledges "communications breakdown"

Ferguson said this was a unique situation because the GTH and Ministry of Highways both wanted the land. "In such a situation, direct guidance from Cabinet on which agency should take the lead on acquiring the land may have resulted in a more timely purchase of these parcels," said Ferguson's report.
Premier Brad Wall characterized the problems identified by the provincial auditor's review of the GTH land deal as a "communications breakdown." (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

On the day that report was released, Wall characterized the problem as a "communications breakdown" and a failure to coordinate.

"We didn't have the right process. We didn't have GTH and [the Ministry of] Highways communicating."  

Mackay said this Donlevy email shows that part of the communications problem goes right to the premier's office.

We didn't have the right process. We didn't have GTH and [the Ministry of] Highways communicating.- Premier Brad Wall

"One of the important jobs for the premier's office to do in any government is to coordinate the efforts of the different ministries and  agencies of government," said MacKay. "They're the ones that need to make sure silos don't go up and that people are working together."

"They could have provided that link. They could have connected those dots to make sure that major mistakes didn't happen. I think taxpayers are owed an explanation as to why that link wasn't made."

CBC asked Donlevy and the premier's office for comment about the email but neither responded.

Pushor prepared presentation for cabinet committee

In 2013, Laurie Pushor was called on by then-GTH minister Bill Boyd to negotiate the purchase of 204 acres of land.
On Nov. 25, 2013, with negotiations concluded, Pushor requested to bring his "GTH interchange land acquisition proposal" to the cabinet land purchase committee's Nov. 27, 2013 meeting.

While we don't know what it says, because it's been redacted, we do know it included two appraisals: Marquart's and one acquired by the GTH.

This committee was established after the first GTH land deal collapsed on the floor of cabinet in November 2012. The due diligence for that proposal was rushed and incomplete and the committee was established to ensure that didn't happen again.

The same day Pushor made the request to the committee for land acquisition, he also made plans to get together with Marquart to go over the details of the proposal to the committee.

"I wonder if we should meet face to face just so we can say we did!" wrote Pushor. 

Pushor submitted his proposal to the committee, signed by Boyd, in time to make it on the agenda.

It's not clear from the emails if the land buying committee did in fact discuss the proposal. The government is refusing to answer any questions about it.


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.