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Conflict of Interest Alleged in BC Housing Decisions

BC Liberals say rules weren’t followed as issues were discussed affecting Atira Women’s Resource Society.

Jen St. Denis 25 Nov 2022TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Texts sent by former BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay to an employee appear to include repeated references to projects and funding involving a housing provider headed by Janice Abbott, Ramsay’s spouse, despite conflict of interest rules barring such communication.

Atira Women’s Resource Society has received over $121 million in funding from the Crown corporation since 2018.

The texts came to light this week as the BC Liberals pushed for answers about an ongoing investigation of BC Housing.

Premier David Eby revealed that the investigation involves a forensic audit of the Crown corporation that will be completed in early 2023. The audit is being done by B.C.’s Office of the Comptroller General, which is responsible for the quality and integrity of provincial government’s financial management systems.

According to the terms of the audit’s reference, it will evaluate BC Housing’s record-keeping and decision-making for financial transactions, evaluate if the Crown corporation used public money for its intended purpose and “undertake a risk-based analysis of cash outflows to selected housing providers and perform limited data analytic procedures on other payments made by BC Housing considering potential fraud risks faced by the organization."

Ramsay, who had been CEO of BC Housing since 2000, resigned in August. His resignation came several weeks after a review of BC Housing identified issues with how supportive housing projects are selected and after the government fired the entire board of the Crown corporation. Ramsay said increasing violence in the Downtown Eastside and hostility to social housing projects convinced him it was time to step down.

A conflict of interest protocol has been in place since Ramsay and Abbott, who has been the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society since 1992, married in 2010.

The protocol stated that Ramsay was supposed to avoid any discussions related to Atira with BC Housing employees, executives or the BC Housing board. He was also not supposed to take actions intending to influence any decision involving Atira.

The Tyee obtained the text messages from the BC Liberals, who say they got them from a whistleblower who has asked to remain anonymous. Andrew Reeve, the communications manager for the party, said BC Liberal staff had been unable to verify the messages. A handwritten note on the document says that Ramsay sent the messages to a former BC Housing executive.

The Tyee has independently verified that the messages were sent from Ramsay to the executive in 2018.

During a press conference in Victoria Tuesday, BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon told reporters that the text messages raise “a lot of concerns.”

“Because this is where a proper board with the proper skill set would make sure that there are guardrails in place to ensure that an apparent or perhaps even actual conflict of interest is avoided — by ensuring there are proper protocols in place,” Falcon said. “It would appear based on some of the text messages that I've had the opportunity to review that none of those provisions were in place.”

In an emailed response to questions sent by The Tyee this week, BC Housing said it has not yet verified the authenticity of the text messages and can’t comment on the specific allegations. The Crown corporation said it takes conflict of interest very seriously and a specific conflict protocol was in place related to Ramsay and Atira Women’s Resource Society because of the relationship between Ramsay and Abbott.

Several former BC Housing employees The Tyee has previously interviewed, who also asked to remain anonymous, said they had concerns about conflict of interest when they worked at the Crown corporation. They said Ramsay broke guidelines repeatedly when he discussed funding decisions and project contracts related to Atira with them and other BC Housing staff, and that he repeatedly pressured senior staff to approve funding to Atira.

The Tyee sent Ramsay a full copy of the text messages, but he did not reply to messages asking for a response and declined to comment when The Tyee reached him by phone on Wednesday. Atira did not respond to requests for comment.

Atira Women’s Resource Society is one of many non-profit organizations that operates housing in B.C., and the largest in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. With a mission to end violence against women, the society runs temporary housing for women fleeing violence, supportive housing buildings, daycares and services like a women-only overdose prevention site in the Downtown Eastside. In 2020, it had total revenues of $66.6 million, with 81 per cent coming from government sources.

Its for-profit subsidiary, Atira Property Management Inc., operates 18 single-room occupancy hotels. Most of the SROs are run as supportive housing, and 11 of the buildings are owned by the province. The organization also has a development wing, Atira Development Society, and has built two new housing projects in Vancouver and one that is under construction in Port Coquitlam.

According to BC Housing documents obtained through a freedom of information request, Atira Women’s Resource Society is now the largest supportive housing provider funded by BC Housing. Its funding has increased at a more rapid pace than other major supportive housing providers that do similar work.

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Text messages released by the BC Liberals show communications about Atira Women’s Resource Society funding from former CEO Shayne Ramsay.

The text messages released by the BC Liberals show that Ramsay repeatedly relayed information from Abbott and often suggested that supportive housing contracts should go to Atira Women’s Resource Society.

“We doing a women’s only in Surrey? That would be a good one for Atira,” one message reads. Another goes on to complain that PHS, another housing provider, is being considered to operate an unspecified housing project over Atira.

The messages also appear to show that Ramsay was unhappy at the progress of an external review of Atira’s finances and governance that had been commissioned by BC Housing staff.

The Tyee has previously reported that the review, by accounting firm BDO, was started in an attempt to solve long-running problems with Atira’s finances that were causing conflicts between BC Housing and Atira staff.

When BC Housing’s executive team received a draft copy of the BDO report in 2018, which identified serious financial and governance problems at Atira Women’s Resource Society, they recommended not funding new projects for Atira until the problems could be resolved.

But BC Housing’s board chair at the time, Cassie Doyle, overrode that decision after meeting with the board chair of Atira Women’s Resource Society. The board also decided to suspend work on the BDO review.

“Where is BDO at in their review?” one of the text messages from Ramsay reads. “Understand they have wasted months and not focused on cash flow issues caused by us not funding maintenance in previous years because then we thought it was manageable. What are next steps?”

In another message, Ramsay pushes for BC Housing to approve funding requested by Atira Women’s Resource Society.

“I also understand we didn’t approve the expenditure for past bad debt of approximately $200k… another head scratcher given the folks that Atira serves. This is almost $400k in expenses that we have not reimbursed and again we scratch our heads about cash flow. I have enough issues to deal with and don’t need this one to bite me in the ass. It is not good enough to say wait for BDO… we have been saying that for over a year now…. I get there are financial management and accounting issues that BDO will assist in resolving we just don’t need to compound them.”

In another message, Ramsay refers to a specific budget item for an Atira Women's Rescource Society program.

“Atira budget meeting today… $6,000 per year for food at Sorella… 108 units,” one message reads, referring to Sorella Housing for Women, a supportive housing buildings operated by AWRS in the Downtown Eastside.

“Asked for an increase to food budget and Maria says we are not increasing food budgets. Compare the budgets for Sorella and other 12 sites?”

According to former BC Housing employees The Tyee has interviewed, Ramsay initially followed the conflict of interest protocol that was put in place in 2010.

But over the years, Ramsay began asking staff about Atira Women’s Resource Society projects. The comments were usually made verbally in one-on-one discussions, the employees said.

“I witnessed Shayne giving direction to staff regarding properties that Atira was interested in. I also witnessed Shayne questioning why other non-profits had gotten projects Atira had unsuccessfully applied for. That happened on more than one occasion,” one former employee said.

In previous responses to The Tyee, BC Housing has said it had never received any complaints about Ramsay breaking conflict of interest rules.

The employees who spoke to The Tyee said they never reported their concerns about conflict of interest to the board of BC Housing or the minister responsible for housing because they feared losing their jobs.  [Tyee]

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