Liberal Minister OK’d Green Fund Board Chair Despite Knowing of Conflict of Interest: Ex-CEO

Liberal Minister OK’d Green Fund Board Chair Despite Knowing of Conflict of Interest: Ex-CEO
Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on Aug. 25, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
Noé Chartier

The recently resigned CEO of the federal green fund says then-Industry Minister Navdeep Bains installed a board chairperson despite knowing her company was being supported by the fund.

Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), an arms-length federal foundation investing in green technologies, has been embroiled in controversy in recent months with accusations of corruption being directed against it by whistleblowers.

Leah Lawrence, who stepped down as president and CEO of the fund, levelled accusations against the government during her Jan. 31 testimony before the House of Commons industry committee. She said her warnings about the conflict of interest involving Annette Verschuren were ignored.

In stepping down, Ms. Lawrence had claimed to be the victim of a “sustained and malicious campaign to undermine” her leadership. Now she is accusing top officials and a former Liberal minister of flouting basic ethics rules.

She told the committee it became apparent in 2019 that the government wanted to replace SDTC chair Jim Balsilie, a well-known tech entrepreneur who was making public statements about government legislation.

Ms. Lawrence said she was then informed by Industry Assistant Deputy Minister Andrew Noseworthy that Ms. Verschuren would become the new chair. The former CEO said she raised concerns through different channels but to no avail.

“It became largely an exercise in managed conflict, rather than precluding or eliminating conflict,” she said.

“I expressed concern SDTC was funding a project for her company,” said Ms. Lawrence. “I expressed concern there was a potential for both conflict of interest and the perception of conflict of interest. I expressed concern that Ms. Verschuren and SDTC could potentially be damaged by the appointment.”

Ms. Verschuren, a former Home Depot CEO, resigned from SDTC in December. It surfaced during committee proceedings that she had moved a motion with the board to provide COVID-19 relief funds to SDTC-supported companies, including her own business NRStor.
Ms. Verschuren, who is currently facing an ethics probe, told the committee on Dec. 14 that her actions were the “normal course of business” because the government supports the clean-tech sector.

Ms. Lawrence said the minister’s staff was contacted about the matter—Navdeep Bains was the industry minister at the time—and was told board chairs should be conflict-free.

“Noseworthy subsequently told me that in absence of a written policy, explicitly prohibiting a beneficiary of funds from becoming chair, that the appointment would go ahead,” she said.

‘Have Cake and Eat It Too’

Conservative MPs on the committee expressed disbelief about the testimony, with Rick Perkins saying what happened doesn’t seem like a “managed conflict,” but rather “that means you’re gonna have your cake and eat it too.”

MP Michael Barrett pressed Ms. Lawrence to confirm that then-minister Bains knew of the conflict and still appointed Ms. Verschuren. SDTC is an arms-length investment vehicle which falls under the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) portfolio.

“So the minister of innovation, [was] personally aware of serious problems with appointing Annette Verschuren, but did it anyway. I’m asking for a third time because this is surprising,” he said.

Ms. Lawrence said she had not spoken with Mr. Bains directly, but that Ms. Verschuren had told Ms. Lawrence she spoke with Mr. Bains three times before she agreed to become chair. “She said that [Mr. Bains] did know that she had a direct conflict.”

Mr. Bains is currently an executive at Rogers. The Epoch Times attempted to reach Mr. Bains via the company but didn’t hear back.

ISED told The Epoch Times in a statement that government appointees such as the SDTC board chairperson are subject to the Conflict of Interest Act and the Ethical and Political Activity Guidelines for Public Office Holders.

“Ms. Verschuren has indicated publicly that she consulted with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and noted that she accepted the appointment after completing her conflict of interest review,” said a department spokesperson.

SDTC is facing allegations of corruption and mismanagement with a whistleblower saying nearly $150 million in taxpayer dollars were improperly disbursed.

The whistleblower appeared before the industry committee in December and accused the government of being involved in an “egregious coverup of the truth.”

“This is a staggering level of incompetence, willful ignorance, and corruption that has resulted in SDTC improperly distributing almost $150 million in taxpayer dollars just in the past few years, and abusing dozens of people that have only tried to talk about the truth,” he said.

The government has been aware of the allegations since early last year and it commissioned a third-party fact-finding review. Only in October were concerns raised publicly, with Ottawa announcing a freeze on the funding of new projects by SDTC.

The Ethics Commissioner is probing allegations that board director Guy Ouimet directed SDTC funds for his benefit. The Auditor General is also conducting an investigation.

SDTC said in its latest annual report that it approved $196.4 million in funding during fiscal year 2022–2023 and disbursed $133.2 million to funded projects.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated with a statement from ISED.