May 31, 2020

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Inaction not an option for mayor Bowman

Editorial

For Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, there really wasn’t any other choice.

In the wake of an announcement last month by the provincial justice department that no charges would be laid in connection to the construction of Winnipeg’s massively over-budget police headquarters, along with the province’s refusal to launch an inquiry into the scandal-plagued project, Mr. Bowman was compelled — perhaps by equal measures of political imperative and personal obligation — to take action.

Winnipeg sues former CAO, contractors over police HQ 'fraud, embezzlement'

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The city budgeted $135 million to convert the former Canada Post main office and mail sorting plant into the police headquarters, but by the time it was completed it had ballooned to $214 million with several problems still continuing to pop up. (Ken Gigliotti / Free Press files)
The city budgeted $135 million to convert the former Canada Post main office and mail sorting plant into the police headquarters, but by the time it was completed it had ballooned to $214 million with several problems still continuing to pop up. (Ken Gigliotti / Free Press files)

Posted: 06/01/2020 7:30 PM

Contractors and subcontractors allegedly falsified documents and invoices, and submitted them for payment. Kickbacks were allegedly paid to the president of a corporation who, at the same time, was the city's top bureaucrat. Construction of the downtown Winnipeg police headquarters was millions of dollars over budget.

With no criminal charges being laid in the aftermath of years of RCMP investigation and no provincial inquiry being ordered, the City of Winnipeg has launched a lawsuit against the building's contractors, architects — and even its own former chief administrative officer, Phil Sheegl.

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And so, on Monday, the City of Winnipeg launched a wide-ranging lawsuit against the project’s contractors, architects and numerous companies and individuals, including the city’s former chief adminstrative officer.

When he was first elected to the city’s highest municipal office in 2014, it was largely on the strength of a pledge to clean up the questionable practices and perceived shady dealings that had been the hallmarks of the previous civic leadership headed by mayor Sam Katz and CAO Phil Sheegl.

At the centre of the controversy was the police headquarters project, an ambitious undertaking that involved moving the Winnipeg Police Service’s central command from the outdated Public Safety Building to the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue. The city originally budgeted $135 million for the project, but by the time it was completed the price tag had ballooned to $214 million. Structural problems with the building’s interior continue to arise.

In addition to the construction-related missteps, the police headquarters project was awash in allegations of fraudulent bookkeeping, payments made for work either never done or already completed, dodgy money transfers and kickbacks.

Despite the myriad accusations and allegations, many of which seemed to be supported by paper-trail evidence, after a five-year RCMP investigation the provincial justice department announced that no charges would be laid. Justice Minister Cliff Cullen stated that "The facts of the file have been reviewed by the Crown attorneys, and they have determined there is not a reasonable likelihood of conviction."

Mr. Cullen also rejected the city’s demand for an independent inquiry into the police-headquarters fiasco, offering instead that the province is focused on "moving ahead." That’s an oddly dismissive position, given the many legitimate lingering concerns about the police headquarters and Premier Brian Pallister’s continuing keen interest in how the city conducts itself in relation to other issues, such as building permits and inspections.

“If the provincial government is not prepared to take action to protect taxpayers ... I can assure Winnipeggers that their municipal government will use any and all available legal means in its authority to seek accountability,” Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman declared. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

“If the provincial government is not prepared to take action to protect taxpayers ... I can assure Winnipeggers that their municipal government will use any and all available legal means in its authority to seek accountability,” Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman declared. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

It left Mr. Bowman and the city with very few options. Acceptance and inaction were not among them, so on Monday the mayor went on the offensive.

"If the provincial government is not prepared to take action to protect taxpayers ... I can assure Winnipeggers that their municipal government will use any and all available legal means in its authority to seek accountability," he declared.

The 57-page statement of claim seeks unspecified general, special, punitive and aggravated damages. The city is also seeking a court order to require the RCMP to preserve all the notes and records from its five-year investigation, and will seek access to the notes of RCMP and prosecutors as well as the financial accounts of the individuals and companies named in the suit.

Whether the city will be successful in its pursuit of accountability and compensation remains to be seen. Whether the matter is eventually resolved in court or leads to a pre-emptive settlement that might simply ease the city’s financial burden is also an open question.

There’s a long legal road ahead. Taking this first step was Mr. Bowman’s only option.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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