WINNIPEG —; The Manitoba government was not justified in an initial attempt to buy $5 million in flood-fighting equipment from a specific contractor without bids from others, the province’s ombudsman said Thursday.
But the 35-page report from Charlene Paquin also says that, in the end, the NDP government followed the rules.
The report neither completely clears nor condemns the government in a controversy it has faced since 2014.
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The issue flared when Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton tried to get approval for water-filled barrier tubes called Tiger Dams for flood-prone First Nations communities in the Interlake region north of Winnipeg.
An anonymous whistleblower complained to the ombudsman that Ashton pushed to have the contract awarded to a company run by a friend, who has contributed money to both Ashton’s and the NDP’s election campaigns.
In the end, the contract was put up for open bidding, but was never awarded. The First Nations communities went to the federal government to get the equipment.
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The ombudsman’s report says senior public servants were concerned with Ashton’s attempt to sole-source the contract and pushed to have other equipment considered.
“Individuals we spoke with … indicated that departmental staff did not agree with waiving a competitive procurement process,” the report reads.
“However, as noted previously, the department was directed by the minister … to draft a submission that proposed an untendered contract for Tiger Dams.”
Government rules allow for contracts to be awarded without open bidding in sudden emergencies or when a specific product is needed and there is only one supplier.
“In this case, we did not review any evidence that the … requirements for ‘sole-source’ procurement were met,” Paquin wrote.
The report leaves questions about the actions of Ashton and other politicians largely unanswered, because the ombudsman does not have the power to investigate members of the legislature.
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A government source, with first-hand knowledge of the discussions, told last year that Ashton made the request to the provincial Treasury Board, which insisted on open bidding.
The matter went to cabinet and Premier Greg Selinger initially backed Ashton’s request, said the source, who would only speak on condition of anonymity.
Selinger said last year he insisted on a full discussion by cabinet and Treasury Board, and then directed the contract be put up for bidding.
Ashton said First Nations communities asked specifically for Tiger Dams, which are distributed by only one company in Manitoba.
“They put forward what they wanted and needed,” Ashton said Thursday.
The ombudsman’s report does not delve into cabinet discussions at the time, but notes that some five weeks passed between when Treasury Board called for open contract bidding and when Ashton’s deputy minister agreed.
“We’ve all learned … we probably should have gone to tender right away. But I want to stress that our government makes no apologies for the intent of what we were doing,” Ashton said, referring to the need to help flood-prone communities.
Kelvin Goertzen, house leader for the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, said the premier should remove Ashton from cabinet.
“The NDP tried to override the civil service,” he said.
“The premier has to decide whether or not this is the kind of direction he wants within his government.”