Abortion views, conflict allegations trip up Newfoundland premier-to-be

The Canadian Press
May 6, 2014 03:47 AM

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - What was supposed to be a smooth waltz into the Newfoundland and Labrador premier's office has become a rough stumble for Frank Coleman.

The Corner Brook-based businessman and political novice is two months away from being confirmed leader of the governing Progressive Conservatives and sworn in as premier.

But he's already the target of conflict-of-interest allegations two weeks after assuring voters that his long-held pro-life views won't roll back access to abortion when he takes power.

"We have an incoming, unelected premier who apparently is secretive and doesn't like to talk to people, talk to the media," Liberal Andrew Parsons said outside the legislature Tuesday.

"Is this what this government is going to revert to? To being even more secretive than they already were?"

Parsons and New Democrat George Murphy took aim for a second day Tuesday at a cancelled paving deal involving a company recently led by Coleman. They say the case raises questions about conflict-of-interest.

Coleman declined an interview request through a spokeswoman.

The opposition parties want auditor general Terry Paddon to investigate after Premier Tom Marshall said Humber Valley Paving was allowed to walk away without penalty from a $20-million contract to finish about 80 kilometres of the Trans-Labrador Highway.

Marshall has said that was due to exceptional circumstances, including forest fires last summer that threw construction behind schedule. He told reporters last week the company completed about 60 per cent of the work and was paid for that only.

At stake were two bonds worth a total of $19 million meant to guarantee the work.

Transportation Minister Nick McGrath said Tuesday he personally negotiated on March 13 an end to the contract with Coleman's son and company spokesman, Gene Coleman.

"This is probably the first time that I've been involved in directly dealing with a contractor in negotiating," McGrath, who was named to the cabinet post last October, said outside the legislature.

"My goal was to protect the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Get this job done, get it done on time, get it done on budget."

Marshall has said that withholding the bonds from Humber Valley Paving for "act of God" circumstances beyond anyone's control could have meant more delay and possibly a costly lawsuit. The work is now up for retender and is to be finished later this year.

Documents released by the government Tuesday include a letter dated March 21 officially releasing the company without penalty.

Coleman, former president of the company, wouldn't comment but he has publicly said he sold his shares in Humber Valley Paving last winter. He resigned from the board of directors three days before McGrath spoke with his son and four days before he officially entered the race for Progressive Conservative party leader on March 14.

Coleman, 60, became the sole candidate after one of two other contenders dropped out, saying the contest was stacked in Coleman's favour. The other challenger was disqualified for Twitter comments the party deemed discriminatory.

Under provincial law, Coleman must call an election within 12 months of becoming premier.

An assistant to Paddon said Tuesday that she had no immediate information on whether the cancelled contract will be reviewed by the auditor general.

McGrath said he showed no favouritism and that Paddon can look into any files he likes.

"I don't deal with the individual. I deal with the company," McGrath said outside the legislature. "I dealt with Humber Valley Paving and Gene Coleman was the spokesperson at the time."


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