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Les Leyne: NDP looks helpless in dealing with housing scandal

Atira, the contractor at the centre of the scandal, rejected the government’s direct order to clean house
Former BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay. A forensic audit released Monday revealed how Ramsay circumvented conflict of interest rules for years to favour the agency his wife, Janice Abbott, runs. BC HOUSING

The extent of the NDP’s helplessness when it comes to dealing with BC Housing was on full display Tuesday as Atira, the contractor at the centre of the scandal, rejected the government’s direct order to clean house.

After a forensic audit released Monday revealed how former BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay circumvented conflict of interest rules for years to favour the agency his wife, Janice Abbott, runs, attention turned to what the government is doing about it.

They’re doing a lot of indignant posturing, but the idea that Premier David Eby is a determined reformer is based more on rhetoric than actions.

It looks like the husband’s favourable treatment of his wife’s agency turned it into such a major housing provider that the government is now afraid to come down hard on Atira for fear of disrupting their low-income clients’ lives.

There are urgent requests, condemnations and vows of action. But there hasn’t been any change.

An exchange of letters last week revealed by the Opposition Tuesday is the latest instance where the government came up short when it comes to doing something definitive.

BC Housing board chair Alan Seckel, part of a slate picked by Eby last year to clean up long-standing problems, wrote to Atira demanding “urgent and substantive action to address the issues” in the about-to-be released forensic audit, saying: “The current leadership is not able to make the necessary and significant changes required.”

He also “strongly demanded” a government seat on the board and the return of $1.9 million that Atira was carrying on the books as a surplus.

The response? Atira said it continues to have confidence in its executive and has no plans to fire Abbott.

It might allow a government official on the board if certain conditions are met. And they’ll give the surplus back if the government concludes some financial reporting to their liking.

There aren’t many examples where a subcontractor tells the chair of a Crown corporation where to get off so bluntly.

It’s the second time Eby or his appointees have been rebuffed. Last year, he asked the BC Housing board to fire Ramsay and it refused.

“I was profoundly concerned about the conduct of [Ramsay], reached out to the board and the board was unprepared to put the CEO on leave or fire the CEO,” he told the house Monday.

So instead, he fired the board last summer and replaced it with a new board led by Seckel.

That looked like decisive action, but the letters suggest it hasn’t amounted to much.

The NDP government also has some loose ends involving a side-note to Ramsay’s career at BC Housing.

The audit reported that he founded a national outfit called Housing Investment Corporation, along with officials in Manitoba and Ontario.

It was to finance affordable housing projects and Ramsay was named CEO. The auditors said it would have allowed agencies like Atira to get operating funding from BC Housing and debt funding from Housing Investment Corporation, both headed by Ramsay.

But there is no record of any consultation or approval from the government for the spin-off, or for the $1.6 million BC Housing gave Housing Investment Corporation to set up shop.

It took four years for the government to act on concerns, when it ordered BC Housing to terminate its relationship with Housing Investment Corporation.

Even then, Ramsay stayed on as CEO of the financing company after resigning from BC Housing. He finally resigned from Housing Investment Corporation on April 16.

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said the government indicated it wanted to sever ties with Housing Investment Corporation in December and “we wanted the money back as well.”

“We sent a formal written request a few months later, and my expectation is we will get those dollars back. They haven’t done so yet. … But my understanding is that that is in the works.”

Kahlon on Tuesday defended Eby’s record on housing. “He saw something inappropriate and he took action.”

But the story so far suggests Eby is a lot better at ordering audits and handling them for his own political benefit than actually acting on the findings.

Abbott is still running Atira and the only curb is that it won’t be considered for new projects. It will have to make do with a budget that the NDP hiked dramatically even while all these problems festered.

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