Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman might be on to something when he suggests that more than half a million dollars in untendered contracts awarded to the Canadian communications firm Navigator “don’t pass the smell test.” The $300 000 handed to the firm one month after the floods in southern Alberta last June stinks most of all. The high-priced firm—with strong Tory ties—is being investigated by the auditor general regarding seven sole-sourced contracts it has been awarded since 2011. Sherman says it’s unfortunate that the investigation will only probe the way the contracts were awarded. He wants to know why so many contracts to external consultants were awarded in the first place.
“The immediate crisis had passed when they signed that contract,” Sherman says, adding the government’s army of in-house communications staff were perfectly capable of doing the work.
This April, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation released documents obtained through requests to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP), which show the government employs 214 full-time communications directors, press secretaries and other communications staff at a cost of $23.1 million per year. The departments being investigated for their contracts with Navigator—Health, and Municipal Affairs—respectively employ 16 and 10 full-time communications staff, and all of the ministers involved in the flood’s aftermath, including the Premier, had press secretaries.
Last January when Navigator learned the Liberals had put in a FOIP request seeking information about the company, it did what it tells its clients to do when faced with a public-relations crisis: attempted to get in front of it. Navigator released a list of all contracts it had with the provincial government from 2011 to the end of 2013. According to the company’s press release, the first $250 000 flood-related contract was for “strategic communication and related services and advice, as well as communication strategy.” Another contract worth more than $70 000 was for the firm to conduct focus groups on the government’s response to the disaster.
Controversy over untendered flood-related contracts first arose last August when it was revealed that a company called Tervita was awarded a $45-million contract for demolition in High River, work on which competitors weren’t permitted to bid. Danielle Smith, the MLA for High River and the leader of the Wildrose, the official opposition, joined Sherman in raising questions about contracts.
“I have to say, giving a sole-source contract for $45 million when we don’t even know what the scope of work is—and their competitors apparently didn’t have a chance to offer a competitive bid—that’s pretty alarming,” Smith told the Calgary Herald at the time.
Last month, the Wildrose raised the issue again, noting that Tervita donated $36 000 to the Tories over the past four years, including $1800 to former premier Alison Redford’s constituency. They are now demanding a ban on all corporate political donations.
In August, Sherman’s demand that the government release all contracts awarded in relation to the flooding was refused. Rick Fraser, the Tory government’s associate minister responsible for High River’s recovery, assured the Herald that sole-sourced contracts would be granted only in “emergency” situations when Albertans were in “immediate need.”
The untendered contract with Navigator, signed the same day as the untendered contract with Tervita, remained under the radar for months.
Prompted by Sherman’s questioning in the legislature this spring, Premier David Hancock defended the Navigator contracts, saying it was critical to get information to affected Albertans immediately.
“In an emergency situation where you need to get all hands on deck and assemble your team of people immediately, you go to people that you know and you trust, who have a reputation for doing the job,” he said during question period.
But according to Navigator’s press release, the province hired the firm July 18, almost a full month after the flood and well after any emergency situation had passed.
Indeed, a look back at the days following the most severe flooding shows a government very much in control of public relations, with the premier and a number of ministers appearing in the media every single day.
In an interview with CBC on June 21, Redford boasted that the government’s emergency preparedness system worked properly.
“There’s no question the alerts were in place, the information has been available and that information has been helpful,” she said. “We needed to be able to get people out, and we did.”
In-house staff managed to coordinate a meeting and photo op with the Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Redford and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi at the Calgary airport the day after the worst of the flooding. They coordinated a press conference on June 24, $1 billion in crisis funding and $1250 in pre-loaded debit cards for displaced adults with $500 per child.
“The media and government staff were doing a very good job getting information to the public in a timely manner,” Sherman says.
By June 29, a call centre was in place to answer questions from residents affected by the flooding. By July 5, registration centres were scheduled to open across southern Alberta for residents to get their debit cards and apply for funding to rebuild. On July 12, the state of emergency was lifted in High River, the community hardest hit by the floods. By the time the Navigator contract was signed, the opposition parties began to question why the government buried for six years and then ignored the recommendations of a report commissioned the last time High River was devastated by flooding in 2005.
Sherman says that was the crisis the government needed to manage in order to make sure that Redford made it through her leadership review scheduled that fall.
“This is also one of the more blatant examples of the way the PCs reward their friends,” he adds.
Navigator’s connections to the governing Tories is well-documented, with several of the company’s high profile principals having worked on both Redford and former premier Ed Stelmach’s leadership campaigns.
“That’s the way it works with these people,” Sherman says. “‘You get me elected and I’ll make sure you’re rewarded later.’”
He adds that Navigator is only the tip of the iceberg, with more than $250 million in sole-sourced consultant contracts being awarded each year.
The Liberals say another FOIP request has revealed Navigator was given a similar deal to help manage the controversy surrounding the death of hundreds of children in government care. That contract was worth $25 000. Party researchers have also uncovered another contract worth more than $107 000 for then-Justice Minister Redford.
Sherman contends these sorts of contracts go far beyond the former premier and Navigator.
“They are nothing more than a means for the Tories to reward their friends and are symptomatic of an entrenched political culture of entitlement,” he says.
The Auditor General’s report into the matter is expected in the fall, just in time to land in the lap of the newly elected PC leader, whomever that may be.