Mayor Brian Bowman insists the Pallister government call an inquiry into the Winnipeg police headquarters construction fiasco, after the provincial justice department announced no charges would be laid following a five-year RCMP investigation.
"We owe it to the taxpayers to get to the bottom of this," Bowman told reporters during a Friday noon-hour news conference at city hall. "We don’t want to see this swept under the rug."
Earlier in the day, the province released a two-page statement closing the police investigation into how the contract for the Graham Avenue project was awarded to Caspian Projects (also known as Caspian Construction) and the firm’s billings on the task.
The province said no charges would be laid against anyone, based the prosecution service’s assessment of the five-year police investigation.
Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said the matter is now closed, and ruled out a public inquiry — something city hall has been demanding for 2 1/2 years.
Such a move is not warranted, Cullen said, "because the RCMP have done their comprehensive investigation. The facts of the file have been reviewed by the Crown attorneys, and they have determined there is not a reasonable likelihood of conviction."
He said the provincial government is focusing on "moving ahead."
"We are trying to create a positive, regulatory framework here in Manitoba, so that business can be conducted in an open and transparent and timely fashion," Cullen said. "We’re focused on building the economy of Manitoba."
The decision will come as a surprise to many who followed the story over the years.
The cost of the project — converting the former Canada Post warehouse facility on Graham Avenue into the new Winnipeg Police Service headquarters — ballooned to $214 million from $135 million, and structural problems continue to plague the building.
Suspicions arose over the decision to award the contract to Caspian Construction, whose principal owner, Armik Babakhanians, was a friend and business associate of then-Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz and then-chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl.
Public concern was heightened, after a series of affidavits filed by the RCMP in court alleged bribes and kickbacks to civic officials, including Sheegl and Katz.
Babakhanians could not be reached for comment Friday.
Katz and Sheegl could not be reached for comment, but their lawyer, Robert Tapper, said RCMP should never have identified the pair as suspects in the investigation.
"It’s disgusting that it took (RCMP) five years to voice what was obvious to them five years ago," Tapper said, adding there was no evidence to support charges involving kickbacks or bribes between Babakhanians and Sheegl and Katz.
Tapper said the investigation has taken a toll on the two men and their families, adding their reputations have been severely damaged.
"They had to labour under the fear and apprehension that someday someone would knock on their door… someone might knock on your door someday and say, ‘Would you mind trying these handcuffs on for size.’ It’s awful, it’s absolutely awful."
Bowman said Friday he was not given any advance warning of the province’s decision, and was unaware the RCMP investigation had been completed.
"What I would like to know is: who knew what, when, what didn’t they know?" Bowman said. "What acts or omissions occurred that led to the police headquarters fiasco? That’s what Winnipeggers would like to know."
The statement issued by the province is inadequate, given the allegations against several individuals that had been disclosed by the RCMP affidavits to the courts, Bowman said, adding he was "surprised" by the document.
Bowman said he recognizes a public inquiry would be "politically sensitive." Without naming names, he said an inquiry would be unwanted by some individuals.
"There are many other players, some of whom are at different levels of government now, that I think in the public good it would be everyone’s interest to hear under oath some of their input," he said.
"There are a lot of people, I have no doubt, would not welcome being compelled to provide evidence and testimony, under oath, under the glare of cameras in a public inquiry… There’s a lot of people I’d like to hear from in that forum... so we can get to the bottom of things."
Katz has returned to private business, principally running the Winnipeg Goldeyes minor-league baseball team.
It’s unknown what Sheegl is doing.
Two former city councillors who were close to Katz (who was mayor from 2004-14) have moved on to higher office: Scott Fielding, former council finance chairman, is now provincial finance minister; Dan Vandal is a two-term Liberal MP, who was recently appointed to federal cabinet.
Bowman said city hall has implemented several initiatives to bring transparency to city hall, and has launched a civil suit against Caspian, seeking $10 million in damages.
Caspian has counter-sued the city, seeking $7.8 million for what it alleges is unpaid work on the police headquarters project.
Both cases are before the courts, without any court dates scheduled.
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.
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