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BC Housing Board Had Conflict Concerns in 2021, Says Former Member

Eby accused of unfair firings as the board prepared to investigate.

Jen St. Denis 25 May 2023The Tyee

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

BC Housing’s board had concerns about conflict of interest risk two years before a government investigation found former CEO Shayne Ramsay had repeatedly broken rules to push public funding to his wife’s non-profit housing organization.

In November 2021, Ramsay and the board chair at the time, Cassie Doyle, signed off on a new and much more detailed protocol written specifically to address the relationship between Ramsay and Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society. The new protocol replaced a much shorter protocol that had been in place since 2010, when Ramsay and Abbott were married.

“The board had some concerns,” said Susan Russell-Csanyi about the new protocol document. “This was before I joined so I can’t really speak to the specifics of why. But for oversight, they felt it wasn’t up to what they would have liked as far as conflict of interest.”

Russell-Csanyi was one of the members of the previous board, which was fired in July 2022 by Premier David Eby, who was housing minister at the time. Russell-Csanyi joined the board on July 12, 2021. The updated conflict of interest protocol is dated Nov. 26, 2021.

The Tyee has spoken to several former BC Housing staff who said they frequently witnessed Shayne Ramsay break the conflict of interest rules when he discussed funding and projects related to Atira.

One of those whistleblowers told The Tyee they spoke out about their concerns during an exit interview in 2021. They were later asked if that interview could be shared non-anonymously with Doyle, which the staffer agreed to.

But when The Tyee asked BC Housing in February 2022 if BC Housing had ever received any complaints about conflict of interest violations in relation to Ramsay, communications staffers said no.

“Any conflict of interest concerns brought forward are investigated as noted in the code of conduct,” reads the statement BC Housing sent to The Tyee. “There have been no such concerns brought forward regarding the CEO.”

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Doyle and another former board member, Perry Staniscia, said no staff had ever come forward with concerns about Ramsay violating the conflict of interest rules. Doyle and Staniscia did not respond to interview requests from The Tyee for this story.

On May 8, provincial Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon tabled a report by consulting firm Ernst & Young that found Ramsay had repeatedly violated BC Housing’s conflict of interest rules when he pressured staff to give projects and funding to Atira Women’s Resource Society. Under the conflict of interest rules, Ramsay was not supposed to be involved in any discussions or decisions involving Atira.

The report pointed out that Atira is now the largest non-profit housing provider funded by BC Housing and in 2022 received $35 million more than the next highest-funded provider.

But the report said there was no evidence that Ramsay or Abbott had personally enriched themselves, or that Atira had misused taxpayer money. Ramsay quit BC Housing in August 2022 while Abbott resigned from Atira Women’s Resource Society last week.

Russell-Csanyi confirmed that conflict of interest concerns had been brought up in exit interviews when staff were leaving BC Housing. She said she first learned of those interviews when the board was discussing the Ernst & Young investigation.

Russell-Csanyi and other former board members say the way Eby fired the entire BC Housing board in July was unfair and has damaged their reputations.

Shortly after releasing the Ernst & Young investigation on May 8, Eby told reporters that when he learned of the conflict of interest allegations he asked that Ramsay be fired or placed on leave until a full investigation could be completed. When the board refused to do that, Eby said, he decided the governing body needed to be replaced.

Russell-Csanyi said she and other board members did not think the EY investigation was thorough enough to justify ousting Ramsay and the board wanted to do its own probe into the allegations. She said the board had also gotten legal advice that BC Housing would have been at risk of a wrongful dismissal lawsuit from Ramsay if they fired or suspended him.

“There wasn’t enough evidence that he was violating the conflict of interest,” Russell-Csanyi said of the investigation conducted by Ernst & Young.

“There was some printed quotes and text messages, but the text messages were redacted. Who actually sent those text messages was our question? And how do we know that that person is being truthful in their accusations? So that’s why we hired a lawyer to give his legal opinion on that matter.” Based on that lawyer’s recommendation, Russell-Csanyi said, the board planned to proceed with its own investigation.

In response to Russell-Csanyi’s comments, James Smith, the deputy communications director of the premier’s office, said Eby wanted to act immediately “when presented with evidence of violations of conflict of interest… rather than wait 10 months until after the forensic investigation was complete.”

“It’s standard practice in organizations to place an individual on leave during an investigation. That would have been entirely consistent with Premier Eby’s recommendation to the board, as he indicated in the legislature,” Smith wrote in a statement to The Tyee. “The board had full access to the initial EY report, which raised significant concerns around the adherence to conflict of interest rules at BC Housing.”

Russell-Csanyi said Eby’s actions had unfairly damaged the reputations of the previous BC Housing board members, many of whom have worked in housing policy or social services roles. “He had the power to shape the public perspective and he went with the narrative that we were corrupt, and that’s incorrect,” Russell-Csanyi said.

“And he’s done a lot of harm that can’t be undone because there are people out there who will think we’re corrupt. We’re not corrupt, we all did our jobs and we were appointed for specific purposes and fulfilled those.”  [Tyee]

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