Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Brandon folk society's friends in high places

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BRANDON -- Has Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell abused his position as an MLA and his relationship with Premier Greg Selinger in order to obtain more than $1 million in provincial funding for a corporation founded by Caldwell and managed by his wife?

That is a question many Brandonites are asking as new details emerge relating to efforts by the Brandon Folk Music and Art Society to obtain almost $4 million of taxpayer support in order to convert the former Strand Theatre in downtown Brandon into a 450-seat performing arts centre.

In March of last year, the non-profit corporation submitted a 200-page funding application to the federal Department of Canadian Heritage, seeking a contribution of $2,088,066 from the Harper government toward the projected cost of the project. The balance would come from the provincial government ($1,114,065), the City of Brandon ($474,000) and from society fundraising ($500,000)

The application was signed by Shandra MacNeill, Caldwell's wife. In the BFMAS organizational chart, which forms part of the application, she is identified as the "Chair (Acting Artistic Director)" and as a member of its board of directors. Caldwell says it's a volunteer position.

Under that funding scheme, taxpayers would contribute at least 88 per cent of the total cost of the project, but it would be wholly owned by the society on completion.

I say "at least" because BFMAS has raised none of the $500,000 and, under the project's cost projections, the reserve is large enough that a BFMAS contribution could be unnecessary.

Taxpayers would be paying millions for a facility that they would have no ownership stake in controlled by the wife of a sitting government MLA.

In addition to a copy of the society's articles of incorporation, which show that BFMAS was incorporated by Caldwell and others several years ago, the application also contains a feasibility study which identifies Caldwell's taxpayer-funded constituency office as a committed tenant of office space in the building.

Also in the application is a copy of a letter (on "Manitoba Legislative Assembly" letterhead) signed by Caldwell, in his capacity as MLA for Brandon East, in which he strongly endorses the project. It does not disclose that his wife is chair of BFMAS.

The application was denied by the federal government in a letter dated March 14. That letter states that "The fundraising and business plans provided were optimistic and did not demonstrate that your organization has the capacity to successfully manage the capital project or the new facility with significant increased fixed costs."

Refusing to take "no" for answer, however, BFMAS is scrambling to submit an amended funding application to the federal government.

All of these facts are a problem for Caldwell, and an even bigger headache for Selinger.

That is because it is illegal under provincial law for an MLA to lobby the provincial government for funding for a corporation where that MLA's spouse is a director or officer of that corporation. (See, for example, sections 3, 4 and 19 of the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act).

Though there are narrow exceptions to the rule, evidence has emerged that Caldwell has been pushing hard behind the scenes to not only keep the Strand project alive, but to convince the province to agree to cover any operating losses that the Strand might incur once in operation.

The losses could amount to hundreds of thousands of tax dollars every year.

In an April 25 email from Caldwell to Vince Barletta (a director with the priorities and planning committee of cabinet) and Martin Gautron (Selinger's special assistant), Caldwell wrote that the application had been "denied over concerns with (the) business plan," including the lack of an operating line underwritten by government to cover any future operating losses that the Strand may incur.

"I spoke with the premier today about getting subscribed to the urban arts centre program and he was supportive," he added. "We will have to turn this around asap to get this back on track quickly... Would like (your) assistance doing this fast-track as the quicker we get a re-assessment, the better!"

Caldwell is no ordinary government backbencher. He is the legislative assistant to the premier and recently told the Brandon Sun that "it's been a unique situation where you have an MLA directly tied to the premier's office."

A comment recently left by a Brandonite on the discussion board sums up local concern about the Strand project. It says "What we're talking about here is a multi-million dollar clubhouse for a few people who happen to have very good political connections."

It's up to Greg Selinger to convince Manitobans that those concerns are not well-founded.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2012 A10

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