Liberal leader pressures premier on property sale disclosure
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Calls for more transparency about her undisclosed property and its sale continue to dog Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson.
On Friday, Liberal leader Dougald Lamont asked the Court of King’s Bench to expedite a hearing on whether or not Stefanson violated the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act by failing to disclose the sale of more than $31 million in property in 2016 and 2019.
Lamont went to court because that’s the only way to hold a member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly to account if they’re alleged to have violated the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act. In April, he paid a $300 court registration fee to ask a judge to decide if the case should be heard. On Friday, his lawyer Dave Hill made a formal application to the court for a hearing on the matter.
“We’re trying to get this moving,” Lamont said. “The facts are straightforward and the law is straightforward. The premier has a legal obligation to disclose when she sells $30 million worth of real estate and she failed to do so,” the member for St. Boniface said.
In an email, the premier’s press secretary said Stefanson “will respect the court process.”
Later that day, the NDP said the premier should also disclose the $859,000 (US$647,500) sale last month of a townhouse in Florida — one of two vacation properties she or her husband owned in toney Boca Raton.
While MLAs are not required to disclose property they own outside the province under current conflict of interest rules, they should, says NDP municipal affairs critic Matt Wiebe.
The 1,496-square-foot vacation home was owned by Jason Stefanson and members of his family — but not the premier, her press secretary Olivia Billson said Friday. It was sold Aug. 15, a real estate listing shows. As a couple, the Stefansons own a condo in the affluent community, according to a 2012 mortgage they took out to buy it.
Billson said that the premier had no financial interest in the property that was sold – that it was co-owned by her husband’s family and other individuals – and that the premier is not required to disclose information on a property that she has no financial interest in.
“I do think that Manitobans expect their leaders to be completely open and transparent about all their assets and what they own,” said Wiebe, who owns a home and a rental property in Winnipeg and a Grand Beach cottage.
“I think that’s especially the case when we’re talking about the premier who apparently owns property not just outside the province, but outside the country in this case, and that hasn’t previously been disclosed,” said the member for Concordia. Stefanson’s family is known to have a cottage on Lake of the Woods.
Under the current Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act, MLAs must disclose their interests in land in Manitoba other than their principal residence, Manitoba’s conflict of interest commissioner Jeffrey Schnoor said.
“They are not required to disclose interests in land outside of Manitoba,” said Schnoor who can’t comment on specific cases.
That means a cottage in Manitoba must be disclosed if it’s not the principal residence, while a cottage in Ontario would not have to be disclosed.
Schnoor noted that the rules will change when new legislation takes effect following the next general election that’s due on or by Oct. 3, 2023.
Under the new Conflict of Interest (Members and Ministers) Act, MLAs will have to disclose their interests in land wherever located. However, there will be an exception for “real property that the member uses as a principal residence or that the member or their family uses primarily for recreational purposes,” he said.
Cabinet ministers will have to disclose this information to the ethics commissioner who must keep it confidential, unless it is needed in an investigation, said Schnoor.
The co-founder of Democracy Watch says more transparency is needed for the public to maintain trust in elected officials.
“In order to stop unethical decision-making and outright corruption, politicians, their staff and all government officials with decision-making power must disclose all significant assets and liabilities, including investment properties, and changes to them in terms of sales and purchases and gifts received from others,” Duff Conacher said Friday.
“If they are allowed to keep them secret… it is a recipe for corruption and abuse.”
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Updated on Monday, September 19, 2022 9:55 AM CDT: Adds info from Billson re: premier having no financial interest