Winnipeg police HQ settlement raises need for public inquiry, former mayor Bowman says
Former Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman warns the need for a public inquiry into Winnipeg’s police headquarters will be heightened if council approves a settlement with the defendants in its lawsuits over the troubled project.
Bowman, who pledged to improve transparency at city hall during his two terms as mayor of the Manitoba capital, said Thursday the provincial government should no longer delay calling an inquiry into the procurement and construction of Winnipeg’s $214-million downtown police headquarters.
On March 23, city council is poised to approve a settlement that will end four years of civil litigation against Caspian Construction, its owner, Armik Babakhanians, and dozens of other people and companies involved in the construction project.
The proposed deal would see the defendants pay the city $21.5 million within a year of the council decision, or face escalating costs that would max out at $28 million.
The settlement has no bearing on a 2022 Court of King’s Bench decision that found former Winnipeg chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl accepted a $327,200 bribe from Babakhanians. Sheegl appealed that decision in January; both he and the city are awaiting a ruling from the Manitoba Court of Appeal.
In a Thursday statement, Bowman said he is pleased to see council consider a multimillion-dollar settlement “after years of perseverance on behalf of taxpayers” over the police headquarters project, whose cost escalated from $135 million in 2009.
At the same time, the former mayor issued a warning.
“If the settlement is approved and a full court hearing does not proceed, the need for a public inquiry will be even greater,” said Bowman.
He acknowledged it is uncommon for former politicians to comment on issues of the day but maintained it’s important in this instance.
“While the transparency and accountability measures introduced over the past eight years have helped to mitigate something like this ever happening again, a public inquiry remains the most effective tool available to put facts on the public record,” which would strengthen and improve city processes and procedures, he said.
“That’s why a public inquiry should be called without further delay.”
NDP pushes premier on inquiry
The police headquarters project was the subject of two city audits, as well as a five-year RCMP investigation that ended without charges. During Bowman’s second term as mayor, he supported the city’s effort to sue dozens of people and companies involved in the project for fraud and deficiencies.
He also led a city council call for the provincial government to launch a public inquiry into the HQ project, along with other real estate and construction projects that fell under the audit microscope when Sam Katz was Winnipeg’s mayor.
Former premier Brian Pallister declined to call an inquiry, initially because the RCMP investigation was still underway and later because of the city’s civil litigation over the police HQ project. Pallister’s successor, Heather Stefanson, has also declined to call an inquiry, also citing the ongoing court case.
At the Manitoba Legislature Thursday, NDP Leader Wab Kinew challenged Stefanson to call an inquiry now that the city’s civil action appears to be coming to a close.
“Now that the city has reached a settlement, there aren’t any more excuses for the premier not to call a public inquiry,” the Opposition leader said during question period.
Stefanson responded that “parts of this … do remain before the courts now, and we will allow that process to take place,” referring to the pending decision over Sheegl’s appeal.
Put ‘sordid, depressing story’ in past: prof
Colin Craig, a former Winnipegger who helped two police headquarters whistleblowers come forward in 2014, described the proposed settlement as “bittersweet news.”
While he’s happy taxpayers will likely recoup some money, he fears the window for an effective inquiry into what he calls “the biggest scandal in Winnipeg’s history” has likely come and gone.
“I think we missed the boat on that, and ‘we’ meaning two provincial governments that both refused to call an inquiry,” Craig said in a Zoom call from Calgary.
“I think the public has a right to know exactly what happened. I think it’s good for the city to understand exactly what happened.”
Craig, the former Prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said Winnipeg still needs to bring in stronger whistleblower protection to enable civil servants to safely speak out about wrongdoing, along with tougher disclosure rules that would force politicians to declare assets outside Manitoba.
Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said he too believes the benefits of an inquiry into Winnipeg’s real estate and construction scandals may be outweighed at this point by the financial burden, as well as the impairment to functioning of the city.
“Over time the potential effectiveness and value of an inquiry lessens as a result of such factors as being overtaken by other events, the passing of actors involved, the loss of documentation and memories that fade,” Thomas said via email.
“It is time to bring closure to the file by negotiating a settlement, completing court cases and putting this sordid, depressing story behind us.”