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Les Leyne: NDP flips, launches dual probes after accusation of kickback in handling of green grants

A consulting firm hired by the NDP to administer grants from its CleanBC program is accused of asking for a kickback to successfully process an application.
Energy Minister Josie Osborne said “new information” came to light on the weekend which led the government to change course and investigate the allegations that a consulting firm hired by the NDP to administer grants from its CleanBC program had asked for a kickback to successfully process an application. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Maybe the suspicions that a small B.C. company’s innovation is being shunned by the government due to an alleged conflict of interest will prove to be true.

Or maybe it’s all a misunderstanding and everything is on the up and up.

But as two investigations start looking into the claims, the one thing that’s clear is how clueless the NDP cabinet is about what’s going on in one of their crucial, flagship initiatives.

A consulting firm hired by the NDP to administer grants from its CleanBC program is accused of asking for a kickback to successfully process an application.

CleanBC is the NDP’s name for the entire climate change initiative, including the carbon tax that produces the revenue for a grant program that is now being investigated. It will be a fundamental part of the party’s re-election campaign, but the government was caught completely off-guard by the claims and has fumbled the response completely.

An electric vehicle manufacturer in Merritt — Edison Motors — has applied unsuccessfully multiple times for grants to continue building large commercial e-trucks. So the company turned whistleblower a few weeks ago. It complained that the firm running the program and adjudicating applications — MNP LLP — had encouraged the company after the last rebuff to retain them to write their applications, in return for a “success fee.”

Energy Minister Josie Osborne’s officials made one phone call to the consulting firm and then insisted there was nothing untoward going on. The government held to that stance last week. It quashed two separate attempts by the opposition B.C. United Party to probe further.

NDP MLAs voted down an attempt in a committee to refer the issue to the independent auditor general for investigation. Then the NDP caucus voted again the next day in the legislature against another opposition motion to get the auditor general involved.

“No story here,” was the operative line.

Then on Monday the government swerved dramatically away from that stance and referred the claims to both the auditor general and the Finance Ministry’s comptroller general.

The 180-degree turn was made on the basis of “new information” that came forward over the weekend, said Osborne.

But why did they miss it weeks ago when they were asked to check it out?

How do you go from emphatic denials of any problem to ordering two serious concurrent investigations into the problem, in the space of five days?

And with all the safeguards that are supposed to be in place, how could even the perception of a conflict arise in the first place?

MNP LLP is a long-established national consulting firm with a Victoria office that did $10 million worth of business with the government last year. It denies all the allegations, saying it keeps grant writing and grant management completely separate, and Edison Motors’ applications were to different programs it does not manage.

But Edison Motors has posted on social media a phone call that suggests there may have been discussion of an end-run around conflict rules. Founder Chace Barber is getting heavy traffic with allegations that lines were blurred between the two roles.

All three opposition parties have jumped on the claim and spent hours Monday voicing suspicions.

When they raised the first question last week in the legislature, Osborne completely ignored it.

Later, after opposition MLAs spent 30 minutes on Thursday pushing for a referral to the auditor general, the NDP simply said no, without elaboration, and voted down the motion.

But Monday Osborne called a news conference to announce the dual investigations, saying “we want to get to the bottom of this.”

The new information raises serious questions and MNP’s involvement in two grant programs has been “paused,” she said.

Premier David Eby said it is critically important that people know they will get a fair shot when applying. “So to ensure that certainty, based on ­information that’s been brought forward, we’re ensuring that the auditor general has the resources and tools necessary to look at this.”

The carbon tax that drives a lot of CleanBC efforts is becoming a hotter topic by the minute and will likely be a key election issue. The last thing the NDP needs is a lot of suspicion about how the hundreds of millions of dollars directed to the program from the steadily increasing tax are being handled.

But that’s just what they are fostering with superficial checks and blanket denials, followed by sudden reversals and solemn acknowledgements there might be a problem after all.

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