The Yukon Party is accusing the territorial government and a former health minister of potentially violating conflict of interest law regarding the Old Crow health and wellness centre.
Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon raised the allegation about former Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost during question period on April 25 after learning about the matter in the House on March 28 — but has not filed a complaint with Yukon’s conflict of interest commissioner.
Frost is accused of working as the director of operations for Ketza TSL Construction Ltd. The company is responsible for building the Old Crow wellness centre — a contract it was awarded while Frost was minister of Health and Social Services.
Dixon suggested that her move out of politics and into working with Ketza in the midst of the major project violates conflict of interest rules.
The Conflict of Interest Act states that a former minister shall not make representations to the Yukon government in relation to a “transaction or negotiation” to which the government is a party and in which they were previously involved as minister.
On March 11, 2021, the Yukon government announced in a news release it had awarded a $44.9-million contract to Ketza TSL Construction Ltd. to build a new health and wellness centre and 10-unit housing complex in Old Crow. An election was called the next day.
Frost was minister and Vuntut Gwitchin MLA when the contract was granted. Frost does not appear to be registered as a lobbyist.
Frost responded to the allegations in a single-line email on April 28.
“I waited the mandatory six months and complied with the Conflict of Interest Act and can confirm that I am working in the interest of my community,” Frost said.
Dixon learned about what he considers a potential breach on March 28 when Minister of Highways and Public Works Nils Clarke said he had not had any direct or indirect conversations with the former minister, although he had been advised that she had reached out to his department about the centre.
At the time, Clarke said he would provide “whatever communication that is viewed to be disclosable” to get back to the member opposite.
“Can the minister of Highways and Public Works tell us if the former minister of Health and Social Services has ever contacted the Government of Yukon in relation to the Old Crow health and wellness centre?” Dixon asked on April 25.
Clarke said current ministers hadn’t met with Frost about the project, as it fell under the Department of Highways and Public Works.
He continued to explain that a formal request from Ketza to meet with ministers was made, with Frost copied, and denied by the government. Frost was directed to work directly with department staff.
Dixon requested all correspondence between Frost and the Yukon government in response.
Dixon also asked whether the government had requested legal advice regarding the potential conflict.
Clarke repeated his previous responses from that day, adding that work on the 10-unit mixed-use housing project and wellness centre are going ahead after some early challenges due to the winter road.
“This is fantastic infrastructure for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation,” he said.
After question period, Dixon told reporters in the Yukon legislative building that the minister confirmed the situation for him.
“That’s very concerning, because that seems like it could very well be a violation of the conflict of interest act.”
Dixon had asked the government to release legal advice and correspondence between the former minister and the government.
“The government refused to either release the legal advice, which would demonstrate that [Frost] was not in violation of that act, or any of the correspondence between the former minister and the government,” Dixon said.
“This is a project that has been mired in scandal before we asked questions last year about it when the project was tendered. It was evaluated at a record speed, released and awarded the day before the election was called by the government. So, the timing of that was extremely suspect.”
Dixon pressed on the topic again during question period and spoke to reporters on April 26.
“In this particular case, it’s pretty clear that there is at least the perception of the possibility of a conflict of interest, and I think that when you have that perception, the government should take action to clarify that and explain why it’s not a contravention of the act,” he said.
When asked about the matter on April 26, Premier Sandy Silver told reporters a request was made for his cabinet ministers to take a meeting — and they did not, thus the minister had his team do what they were supposed to do.
Filing conflict complaint has potential consequences
The commissioner’s annual reports indicate that members of the legislative assembly can make conflict of interest complaints against another member or minister; however, if the commission finds there are no reasonable grounds for making the complaint, the legislative assembly may “find the complaining member in contempt of the assembly and suspend the complaining member from sitting in the assembly or any committee thereof.”
“As will be appreciated, the making of a formal complaint is a serious matter, which puts into play a formal and potentially costly investigation process, and which may result in serious and public consequences to either the member or minister complained against or the member making the complaint,” reads the latest report published online.
“Accordingly, members and ministers are well advised to take considerable care to arrange their affairs so as to avoid a conflict of interest (‘an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure’); and members will think carefully before making a formal complaint against another member or minister.”
Silver said he did not reach out to the conflict commissioner because “we did nothing wrong.”
He said the onus is on the proponents — the former minister and the private sector — when it comes to lobbying and reporting.
Silver called it an attempt to “assassinate character.”
“There was a request to meet, and the administrators did not. That’s the end of the story,” he said.
In a legislative return submitted by Clarke on April 27, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy office deemed the design-builder’s letter on Dec. 14, 2021, as confidential in nature, and as a result, the letter was not released.
“The requested meeting did not take place, instead, as per the attached email, on Dec. 15, 2021, the design-builder was directed to work with officials at the Department of Highways and Public Works. This is the normal avenue for contract management,” reads Clarke’s response on contractor engagement on the Old Crow project.
The attached email, which was made available, directs the proponents to engage with Paul McConnell, the deputy minister of Highways and Public Works.
Contact Dana Hatherly at email@example.com