Crown corporation threatens to sue Free Press

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MANITOBA Public Insurance is threatening to sue the Winnipeg Free Press over a column critical of the public insurer and the Tory government for using excess Autopac revenue to pay for the escalating cost of driver and vehicle licensing.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/01/2022 (329 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

MANITOBA Public Insurance is threatening to sue the Winnipeg Free Press over a column critical of the public insurer and the Tory government for using excess Autopac revenue to pay for the escalating cost of driver and vehicle licensing.

In a letter dated Dec. 22, a lawyer for MPI and CEO Eric Herbelin alleges a Dec. 17 column by Dan Lett titled Tories rob Crowns, hoodwink public contained defamatory material and MPI gave notice it intended to sue the newspaper for defamation.

The lawyer said the alleged defamatory statements included that MPI’s plan to use Autopac revenue surpluses was done in an improper manner and it tried to hide the plan from the public, MPI had acted in “an immoral, dishonest and possibly illegal manner,” and the MPI action was a “scam.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES The MPI head offices.

The lawyer said MPI and its CEO request a retraction and apology and if not “MPI will be seeking damages commensurate with the harm which has been caused to its reputation.”

Free Press editor Paul Samyn said “the public only learned about MPI’s move to use ratepayers’ money to subsidize what was once a government responsibility because of the Free Press, and that’s why this latest legal threat is so concerning.

“Brian Pallister tried this tactic when we reported facts about his Costa Rican tax bill that he didn’t like. I would have hoped MPI would have learned attempts at libel chill will not stop the Free Press from doing our job and delivering journalism that Manitobans deserve.”

The Free Press first reported in October that MPI had used $113 million in excess vehicle insurance revenue to pay for operating costs and information technology upgrades at driver and vehicle licensing instead of issuing rebates to drivers or reducing the cost of insurance.

Critics have argued the licensing costs should have been paid for by the government using taxpayer money and not from vehicle insurance premiums paid by MPI ratepayers.

The plan, which was disclosed by Herbelin at a Crown corporations meeting in June, was created by MPI and approved by both MPI’s Tory-appointed board and Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton.

The Public Utilities Board recently found it was improper for MPI to divert money instead of issuing rebates and rate cuts and should also have disclosed its plan to ratepayers. The PUB, which regulates rates, admitted it didn’t have the power to order MPI to return the money to vehicle owners.

Brian Smiley, a spokesman for MPI, said “as this is now a legal matter, MPI respectfully has no comment to provide.”

In a statement, Wharton said “under the leadership of CEO, Eric Herbelin, MPI has accomplished many achievements.

“They are a true partner with the province, especially while Manitobans have dealt with the ongoing global pandemic. MPI continues to pivot in order to provide service to their customers during these challenging times, while also continuing to decrease rates and providing rebates of approximately $500 million since the start of COVID-19.

“As Crowns minister, I have very much appreciated the collaborative and transparent partnership as well as the dedication and integrity of MPI, the board of directors, board chair, and CEO.”

Opposition parties were united in saying MPI has no business threatening the newspaper with a lawsuit.

MLA Mintu Sandhu, the NDP critic for MPI, said the lawsuit threat shows “we may have a new premier, but it’s clear nothing has changed.

“The Pallister-Stefanson PCs continue to politically interfere in our Crowns and attack the freedom of the press. Instead of looking out for ratepayers and letting journalists do their jobs, the PCs are making life more expensive for regular families and lashing out at media when they don’t like what they read,” Sandhu said.

Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberal party, said “this is not an appropriate use of ratepayers’ money.

“MPI shouldn’t be threatening to sue anybody. This was fair comment.”

Lamont also said the original Free Press column didn’t target MPI.

“The real target is the PCs,” he said. “The Tories have been looting our Crown corporations for political purposes.

“They are trying to act like these are government departments, but they are not.”

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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Updated on Wednesday, January 5, 2022 7:24 AM CST: Adds link

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