Premier Heather Stefanson has admitted she failed to follow the province’s conflict-of-interest rules after the sale of properties worth millions of dollars.
The real estate deals that tripped up the premier involve rental and commercial properties that are the subject of a letter the NDP sent to the province’s conflict-of-interest commissioner; however, Stefanson is unlikely to face any consequences under legislation that critics have long complained has no teeth.
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 the McDonald Grain holding company sold for $1.78 million. Stefanson owns 20 per cent of the shares in the real estate holding company.
The Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act requires that members file with the clerk of the legislative assembly statements within 15 days of the start of a new session that list their and their spouses’ assets and any potential conflicts. If they acquire or dispose of any assets afterward, they’re required to file a further statement disclosing them, and are to meet with the conflict-of-interest commissioner within 60 days to ensure that adequate disclosure is made.
Stefanson, who has been an MLA since 2000, had listed the properties for several years among her assets and then stopped, but failed to file any statements disclosing they had been disposed of when they were sold.
On Thursday, Stefanson said in a prepared statement that she should have done so, and that it was an "oversight" and would be corrected immediately.
Canada’s democracy watchdog says provinces across the country rely on elected officials to follow what amounts to an honour system and that it’s a "bad system."
"Voters need to know what politicians and public officials own and owe in order to determine whether they’re in a financial conflict of interest," Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said from Toronto Wednesday.
"It simply can’t be determined unless you know what they own and what they owe. If you want to serve the public, then you shouldn’t have any problem disclosing what your private interests are. No one who actually wants to serve the public should have any problem with disclosing this information."
Having someone in charge of a province who forgets to disclose the disposal of assets worth millions of dollars is troubling, the director of the non-partisan, non-profit organization said.
"Why should anyone trust them with the public budget of billions of dollars?" Conacher said.
Elected officials’ acquisition and disposal of assets needs to be tracked in real time, especially when it involves real estate and members of a governing majority with the power to quickly change laws and regulations, he said.
"If we don’t have that information, you simply cannot tell at any time whether a politician or public official has a conflict of interest, and that’s why the disclosure is key and why meeting the deadlines for the disclosure is also key," he said.
Across Canada, conflict-of-interest or ethics commissioners don’t have the power to investigate or punish violations, Conacher said.
In Manitoba, members’ disclosure statements can be viewed in person in the clerk of the legislative assembly’s office. The documents aren’t available electronically and making photocopies is not permitted.
If a voter believes a member has a conflict, they must go to Court of Queen’s Bench and pay $300 to file a detailed affidavit asking a judge to authorize a hearing before another judge. If the 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, get kicked out of office and have to pay restitution to the government or Crown agency for any financial gain that resulted from the violation.
The opposition NDP sent conflict-of-interest commissioner Jeffrey Schnoor a letter regarding the premier’s failure to disclose disposing of $31 million in assets. It asked him for an opinion on whether members should be required to follow the rules laid out in the legislation.
"It is of the utmost importance that public officials who are charged with creating and administering the law follow those same requirements themselves," NDP finance critic Mark Wasyliw said in the letter obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press.
Elected leaders need to be transparent about their business transactions because "those transactions can impact and influence their public decision-making," the letter from the member for Fort Garry said.
"This is a matter that concerns the ability of Manitobans to trust their leaders are following the law and the law applies to all Manitobans equally, regardless of their political position."
The premier needs to explain how she failed to disclose selling off the assets, he said Wednesday.
At the start of every session, every MLA, including the premier, meets one-on-one with Schnoor to talk about their financial situation and is advised on how to stay in compliance with the law, Wasyliw said.
"I mean, this is pretty sort of foolproof. It’s set up so that every single MLA — doesn’t matter how sophisticated and knowledgeable you are — would be able to comply with the law. So she would have met over the course of this period of time and had a sit-down meeting with Mr. Schnoor. The issue is, did she disclose this in that interview with Mr. Schnoor? And did she ignore his advice? I think there’s a lot of questions here."
In a written response to the NDP finance critic, Schnoor declined to opine on Stefanson’s failure to disclose, saying the legislation allows him to give members an opinion on their own obligations under the act, not those of another member.
The commissioner doesn’t have the power to investigate alleged breaches of the conflict-of-interest act, Schnoor wrote in his letter to Wasyliw that the NDP provided the Free Press. Any voter can seek a remedy from the court, the commissioner wrote, citing that section of the legislation.
» Winnipeg Free Press