Settlement won’t rid city of police HQ stench Answers to scandal a slam-dunk political victory
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Is this really the end of the debacle that was the construction of the Winnipeg Police Service headquarters?
This week, council voted 14-2 in favour of a $21.5 million out-of-court settlement that would bring to an end a civil lawsuit brought against principal contractor Caspian Projects, engineering consultant Adjeleian Allen Rubeli and a host of other defendants accused of construction deficiencies and the fraudulent inflating of the price of the project.
At first blush, the $21.5 million seems like a hell of a deal for the defendants.
The cost of the project — a wholesale retrofit of the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue — soared to $214 million, or a 60 per cent overrun on the original $135 million price tag.
Although overruns on big public capital projects are not unusual, in this instance there was evidence the increased costs were not solely the result of incompetence. Much of that evidence came from two RCMP criminal probes, conducted over a period of five years, which produced volumes of evidence of possible fraud along with a recommendation to Manitoba Justice to lay criminal charges.
In 2019, in a decision that gobsmacked the legal community, Crown prosecutors declined to proceed with the case. After that, giving the defendants the ability to buy their way out of any further legal trouble at roughly 10 cents on the dollar is, by most measurements, a real bargain.
With the out-of-court settlement done, there is one final bit of legal business to resolve in this story.
In January, former city chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl announced he was appealing a March 2022 court decision that found he accepted at $327,000 bribe in exchange for awarding Caspian the main contract for the police headquarters.
In court hearings that helped to expose many of the findings of the RCMP criminal probe, Court of King’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal found Sheegl was guilty of “a breach of trust and a breach of loyalty” for accepting the bribe and splitting it evenly with former mayor Sam Katz, who was not a party in the lawsuit.
Joyal ordered Sheegl to repay the city for the value of the bribe, severance payments made to him when he resigned his CAO post and court costs that totalled $1.1 million. Sheegl’s lawyers are arguing Joyal made several mistakes in law in reaching his verdict.
Once that appeal is resolved — and it’s not clear when that’s going to happen — will the story come to an end?
There are still pressing calls for a full judicial inquiry. Former mayor Brian Bowman helped keep that issue alive when he issued a statement earlier this month suggesting the need for a public inquiry is now “even greater” in the wake of the settlement.
To date, however, both former premier Brian Pallister and current Premier Heather Stefanson have deferred a final decision, arguing they can’t discuss an inquiry while legal proceedings are ongoing.
With the $21.5 million out-of-court settlement finalized, only Sheegl’s appeal remains. And that is not reason enough for Stefanson to continue kicking this can down the road. Particularly when other events are threatening to change the political landscape in Manitoba.
With a high likelihood she will lose the fall election — her party trails the NDP badly in opinion polls — Stefanson could very easily ignore this story and let NDP Leader Wab Kinew deal with it if and when he becomes premier. And Kinew has already committed to holding an inquiry if his party triumphs.
However, Stefanson should consider this: ordering an inquiry into the matter will be a political win for whichever leader decides to take the plunge. Although there are, no doubt, people in the property and development industry who would rather the story die, the appetite for truth among Winnipeggers appears to be strong.
It should also be noted there are some interim options Stefanson could take to put her on the right side of the issue. Finding a knowledgeable third party to review the decision not to lay charges, for example.
The decision not to lay charges in the police headquarters scandal simply does not pass the smell test – not for informed sources in the legal profession and, certainly, not for many Winnipeggers.
That was the approach taken by former justice minister Gord Mackintosh when facing calls for an inquiry into the wrongful conviction of James Driskell.
In 2003, before making a decision on an inquiry, Mackintosh tasked retired provincial court judge John Enns to review the case materials and determine whether there were unresolved issues that justified a judicial inquiry.
In the end, Enns determined a deeper examination was warranted. The subsequent commission of inquiry became a landmark moment in our understanding of the systemic and cultural foundations of wrongful convictions.
The decision not to lay charges in the police headquarters scandal simply does not pass the smell test — not for informed sources in the legal profession and, certainly, not for many Winnipeggers. Taking action — in the form of an inquiry or interim review of the case — is an opportunity for someone to demonstrate strong leadership.
That opportunity is just lying there, waiting for someone to pick it up. The big question is whether it will happen now, or after the election.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Saturday, March 25, 2023 9:56 AM CDT: Fixes typo