Premier Heather Stefanson should be defending Winnipeg taxpayers against grand-scale corruption in city administration. She should respond to the reasonable request of Mayor Brian Bowman and city council for an inquiry into the costly, corruptly managed project to turn the Graham Avenue post office into a city police headquarters.
The city is doing its best within its limited means to recover the project’s excessive costs. City lawyers won from Justice Glenn Joyal, Chief Justice of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, a finding that Phil Sheegl, former chief administrative officer of the city, accepted a $327,000 bribe from Caspian Construction. The city awarded to Caspian the contract to renovate the former Canada Post office building and turn it into a police headquarters.
The city also accepted massive cost overruns on the project. Justice Joyal ordered Mr. Sheegl to reimburse the city for the bribe and part of the overruns. The project ran nearly $80 million over its original projected cost of $135 million.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigated the project but did not lay a criminal charge against Mr. Sheegl. A criminal prosecution would have required evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Sheegl was guilty. The city’s civil claim against Mr. Sheegl required only a finding that the $327,000 payment from Caspian was probably a bribe.
Justice Joyal’s conclusion was enough to show the public the municipality was not adequately protected against high-level corruption. The public’s confidence in the careful management of their tax money has therefore been shaken.
The public should not be asked to assume this was the first time a Manitoba building contractor ever offered a bribe to a public official, or that this was the first time a public official ever accepted one. Mr. Sheegl and the managers of Caspian clearly thought they could get away with such a thing. Others in the same line of work may think the same way.
A well-structured inquiry should review city contracts made on Mr. Sheegl’s watch in search of other thinly disguised improprieties. It should find out what builders and public officials believe to be the common practice in the industry.
The Quebec government in 2011 appointed Justice France Charbonneau to inquire into the awarding and management of public building contracts. In four years of work, revelations before the inquiry led to resignations of mayors of Montreal and Laval and an interim mayor of Montreal. It uncovered massive corruption in the construction of the McGill University Health Centre.
Quebecers discovered corruption in their midst because they went looking for it. In Ms. Stefanson’s Manitoba, it seems, the government does not go looking for corruption, even when it is blatantly obvious. Sure enough, none is found. The premier reasons that an inquiry should not be held because some of the parties may want to litigate aspects of the case. That is not a sound reason for covering up massive abuse of public funds.
Sweeping it under the rug is not good enough. The mound under the rug has grown too big to ignore.
Ms. Stefanson should show she is firmly on the side of the taxpayers and not on the side of the crooks and bribe-takers who would inflate the costs of public construction projects and pocket a share of the difference. She should reassure the public that when the City of Winnipeg loses its way, the Manitoba government will step in to uphold careful management of public funds.