The NDP opposition asked questions in the legislature on Thursday about a grant that benefited Judi Tyabji Wilson, a former BC Liberal MLA who has written a soon-to-be-released biography of Premier Christy Clark.
"Part of this project was to stop sheep hides going into a landfill," NDP house leader Mike Farnworth told reporters after Question Period. "From the answers I heard today, this whole thing stinks like sheep hides in a landfill."
Asked to sum the issue up, Farnworth said, "How is it that the premier's biographer is able to get a grant that ministry staff say is in a conflict of interest, it gets awarded, the government's been told it's a conflict of interest, and then the grant gets increased and it doesn't meet its objectives?"
The grant that concerned government staff was announced in June 2014, about a year before Tyabji Wilson said she entered a contract with the publisher Heritage House to write Christy Clark: Behind the Smile.
Pebble in the Pond Environmental Society was awarded the grant through the Job Creation Partnership, a program jointly funded by the Canadian and B.C. governments. Initially for $128,600, through two amendments it was raised to $181,635.
The Tanned, Wild and Woolly project included plans to teach five people in Powell River a traditional method for tanning sheepskins. It was billed as a way to reduce waste and add value to local agriculture products.
According to documents the NDP received through a freedom of information request, government officials had concerns about the project's business plan and its intention to hire Tyabji Wilson, who was also president of Pebble in the Pond.
"There is a direct conflict of interest with the President of the Non-profit being hired as the Supervisor on the project," the assessment said. "Normally, it is not a good practice for a board member to be hired by the Not-for-profit to undertake the project supervision. This one especially looks bad as the President was the one that submitted the application and has been the negotiator for the project."
Of the assessment, Farnworth said, "One has to be dumbfounded a ministry would ignore its own staff's recommendation, and it's there in black and white, that this is a clear conflict.”
Farnworth said Tyabji Wilson has written the biography of Clark and is married to Gordon Wilson, a former BC Liberal leader who later became an NDP cabinet minister. Wilson endorsed the Liberals and Clark in the 2013 provincial election and was hired on contract to advocate for local hiring in the liquefied natural gas sector.
Issue resolved, says Tyabji Wilson
Reached by phone, Tyabji Wilson said a ministry official in Nanaimo raised the conflict concerns before the grant was awarded. "I know that was resolved," she said. "That had to be resolved before we could even be invited to do a full proposal."
Powell River, where the project was to be based, is small and nobody else could have done the work that was being proposed, she said. Also, if the money had not been awarded, it would have gone back to Ottawa and not to another applicant in B.C., she said. "There was no net loss to someone else."
Tyabji Wilson said there were also concerns about the proposal to provide the training on the farm she and her husband own, so the location for the program was instead moved to a local gravel pit which added challenges and costs.
Of the five people who participated in the program, Tyabji Wilson said three have found employment, one started their own business and she's lost track of the fifth.
She also said she found the guidelines for the program, particularly the amount of reporting required, to be overly strict. "If I'd known the paperwork was that onerous, I would have built in a budget for other people to do it."
As for the biography of Clark, Tyabji Wilson said they have known each other since they were both about 19 years old and in the youth wing of the Liberal party together. Over the years they have had their differences and the book is unauthorized by Clark, though the premier did grant her a few interviews, she said.
Tyabji Wilson said she proposed the book to the publisher Heritage House a few weeks after public outcry forced Clark to cancel plans to close the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver for a yoga event in June 2015.
'V for Vendetta'
In the legislature, NDP MLAs questioned the $67,000 they said Tyabji Wilson received to supervise the project.
Michelle Stilwell, the minister of social development and social innovation, responded by saying the program helped the people who were intended to benefit. "The chief financial benefactors in this program are the five individuals who received the training and the skills development that they need to get a foothold in the job market," she said.
Stilwell said that the ministry follows very strict guidelines when awarding or extending grants, though it does need to allow some flexibility.
Farnworth noted that the documents say one thing Tyabji Wilson did was write a jingle for the project. "Perhaps the Premier can tell the House, was the jingle a version of 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' or 'The Premier Had a Little Lamb?'
"Whatever it was, the taxpayers of this province have clearly been fleeced on this project," Farnworth said.
Clark responded, "No, I understand that it was the theme song for the upcoming sequel to 'V for Vendetta.'"
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