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Les Leyne: Wife of BC Housing boss got priority for funding

A forensic audit released Monday found that “mismanagement” of a conflict of interest permeated the entire BC Housing organization.
Premier David Eby, with Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, speaks ­during an announcement about the results of a forensic investigation of BC Housing, at the legislature on Monday. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A forensic audit released Monday found that “mismanagement” of a conflict of interest permeated the entire BC Housing organization.

But looking at it from the perspective of a determined husband at the top of a Crown corporation who subverted the rules of his organization for years and channelled millions of taxpayers’ dollars to a contract agency run by his wife, it was managed brilliantly.

The audit focused on Shayne Ramsay, who resigned as CEO of BC Housing last summer after whistles began blowing. His announcement was full of personal anguish about the housing crisis. But behind the scenes the audit found there was a corporate culture in which Atira Women’s Resource Society — run by his wife, Janice Abbott — got preferential treatment and more money than any other agencies in the field.

Despite a standard policy on the books to mitigate the conflict of interest, when Atira called BC Housing with a request (more accurately, a demand), standard operating policy was: “Make it happen.”

Atira grew steadily over the years to become the largest provider and BC Housing’s number one contractor. Its funding outpaced similar agencies, even as controversies festered about how it handled the money.

The spousal relationship was well known for years and basically shrugged off, on the premise that there was a “screen” to separate Ramsay from all Atira-related decisions. But the audit found at least two dozen cases where he intervened in Atira matters to Atira’s benefit.

You have to think the severity of the housing crisis had something to do with it. The provincial government is just as desperate as low-income clients are when it comes to housing. Officials were a lot more interested in just funding BC Housing in order to check off a box on their promise lists than delving into what was really going on there. Even as suspicions grew about BC Housing, the NDP hiked its funding substantially.

Growing concerns led to a comptroller general’s investigation (via Ernst & Young) of BC Housing. While no evidence of malfeasance was cited, it illustrates how far a public corporation can run off the rails when no one is watching.

The audit paints a picture of corporate mismanagement that permeated the entire organization, based on the wife’s organization having “a familiarity, or level of comfort” with her husband’s funding agency “that does not exist with other providers.

“Atira was direct-awarded contracts without transparent, competitive processes. … BC Housing has continued to advance substantial amounts of funding to Atira without a clear understanding of Atira’s financial status.”

The auditors “observed numerous instances whereby Ramsay engaged in the influence of decisions that were made to benefit Atira. … Atira regularly bypassed traditional communication channels by approaching senior members of BC Housing directly … for funding requests.”

The audit also revealed a striking level of supercilious disdain in the corporation over and above the conflict issue.

Its records of financial dealing with Atira are late or incomplete. “Certain individuals were either unavailable or unwilling to be interviewed.

“Certain information appears to have been deleted and was not available for examination.”

Eby gets some credit for at least starting to take action on this festering problem. As minister of housing, he asked for an external review that found mismanagement.

But he fell far short when it comes to explaining the full extent of how bad it was. He released the review (as quietly as possible) on the eve of a holiday. He also asked for a deeper dive into the conflict of interest concerns, but did so confidentially, and didn’t disclose it was in the works until several months ago.

Eby fired the entire board of the Crown corporation, but didn’t fully disclose why. It had a lot to do with the board refusing his instruction to relieve Ramsay from his post.

He also expressly denied the mass firing had anything to do with wrongdoing.

On Monday he said it is “absolutely not the case” there was wrongdoing at the board level. But drawing a line between the board and the corporation is a slippery way to avoid telling the full story.

The damper was put on the full story while Eby was putting his leadership bid together.

Atira is now frozen in place, not eligible for new contracts until it can be shown that the new board and new CEO have cleaned up the corporation’s act.

Better late than never.

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