A formal complaint has been filed in Court of Queen’s Bench alleging that Premier Heather Stefanson violated conflict of interest rules when she failed to disclose selling property for millions of dollars.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont paid the $300 fee required to have a judge consider hearing his complaint. It follows a Jan. 27 Free Press report that the premier breached the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act by not declaring the disposal of three properties sold for $31 million in 2016 and 2019.
MLAs are required to file statements with the clerk of the legislative assembly within 15 days of the start of a new session listing potential conflicts from assets they or their spouses own. If they acquire or dispose of any assets afterward, they’re required to file a further statement of disclosure within 30 days.
The premier received notice of the court action Thursday, Lamont said. The premier’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
"It is a pretty extraordinary situation where a minister was selling millions of dollars of property, and that minister failed to disclose that to the legislature," said Lamont, who will appear before a judge May 18 to ask that the case be heard.
Taking court action to allege a member of the legislature breached the act is also extraordinary, although it’s the only available remedy.
"To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an application to court under the conflict of interest legislation governing MLAs," Manitoba’s ethics commissioner Jeffrey Schnoor said Friday.
“It is a pretty extraordinary situation where a minister was selling millions of dollars of property, and that minister failed to disclose that to the legislature." — Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont
Until new legislation takes effect, the commissioner has no power to investigate an alleged breach of the act by an MLA, he said. The only recourse available is through the court.
A voter can go to Court of Queen’s Bench and pay $300 to file a detailed affidavit asking a judge to authorize a hearing.
If a hearing is granted and the judge determines conflict-of-interest rules were broken, the member could be suspended for up to 90 days, pay a fine of up to $5,000, be removed from office and have to pay restitution to the government or Crown agency for any financial gain that resulted from the violation.
Schnoor noted when new legislation — The Conflict of Interest (Members and Ministers) Act — goes into effect after the next general election, recourse can be sought through the newly renamed conflict of interest commissioner rather than going to court.
When the Free Press first reported that Stefanson had listed three properties among her assets for several years and then stopped — but failed to file any statements disclosing they had been disposed of when they were sold — the premier said in an email that she should have done so, and that it was an "oversight."
In 2019, the McDonald Grain Company Ltd. — Stefanson is listed as a director — sold The Ritz apartment block (859 Grosvenor Ave.) for $7 million and Drury Manor (1833 Pembina Hwy.) for $22.5 million without filing a statement disclosing the disposal of assets.
In 2016, she failed to disclose the disposal of a storage facility on Saulteaux Crescent that the McDonald Grain holding company sold for $1.78 million. Stefanson owns 20 per cent of the shares in the real estate holding company.
Lamont said pursuing a complaint has been a challenge and highlights the "long and complex process" for voters in Manitoba to hold elected officials accountable. He said it has taken three months and involved preparing affidavits, gathering evidence, title searches and corporate registry information in an effort to hold the premier to account.
"We have to do the work, because I do think that this needs to be looked at by somebody independent. This is a pretty serious matter and it requires more than just political theatre and writing a letter to a commissioner who has no power to investigate," he said, taking a swipe at the NDP, which first raised the issue and wrote a letter to Schnoor asking for his opinion on whether the rules had been broken.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.