Dermod Travis: Site C dam opens up the floodgates for direct-award contracts

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      Another megaproject, another chance to dole out direct-award contracts.

      In April, the Alaska Highway News filed an access to information request for a list of the direct-award contracts signed during the first stages of Site C dam construction. The list provided to the News at the end of July covers the period from January 1, 2014, to Feb. 29, 2016, and is as interesting for what's in it, as for what's redacted.

      Unless a specific exemption exists, B.C. government rules dictate that the purchase of materials and service or construction contracts must be put to public tender when they exceed $25,000 and $100,000 in value, respectively.

      Some of the exemptions B.C. Hydro relied on for its direct awards, included: critical expertise, extension due to increased scope, and time constraints.

      École polytechnique fédérale, Ducks Unlimited, two consultants, and 23 companies are on the list.

      The contracts ranged in value from $30,373 to $900,000, but that's only for the awards the utility disclosed.

      Four of the 23 companies and the value of their contracts were redacted, as was the value of contracts with six other companies, including Duz Cho Construction, IDL Projects, and Paul Paquette and Sons.

      According to B.C. Hydro's list of payments to suppliers—between April 2013 and March 2015—the utility paid Paquette and Sons $49,343, Duz Cho Construction ($6.16 million), and IDL Projects ($6.997 million).

      Presumably, all or part of the direct-award payments are included in those totals.

      Odd that B.C. Hydro uses one piece of legislation to redact information that it's obligated to disclose under another.

      There's no “he's a swell guy” exception, but you get a sense from some of the awards that the "swellness" of the recipient may have been a factor.

      Telus signed a $900,000 contract for mobile telecommunications, due to its “critical expertise”. Fido may draw issue with that.

      Coincidentally, Telus has donated $481,366 to the B.C. Liberal party, not including an additional $52,883 in personal donations from two of its in-house lobbyists.

      The services of B.C. resident and former Kiewit & Sons vice-president Frank Margitan were acquired through a $336,000 contract with a numbered Alberta company.

      Hopefully, that was for work other than the “independent panel” of industry experts that Margitan chaired in 2014 to vouch for B.C. Hydro's Site C cost estimates. Hand-picked and independent don't really go together, particularly when Margitan selected the other three panel members.

      Don Fairbairn won a $157,500 contract to perform “due diligence,” due to his “critical experience”.

      Fairbairn's critical experience is in high demand for direct-award contracts in B.C. no matter the task: hydro facilities, homelessness and addiction issues, bridges, and wastewater treatment plants.

      In 2006, he and former Premier Gordon Campbell's deputy minister Ken Dobell were directly awarded a $300,000 contract to develop "a new model for addressing the problem of homelessness amongst residents battling addiction and/or mental health".

      He's had a string of good luck at Partnerships B.C., pulling in $473,456 in contracts from 2006-07 to 2014-15.

      In 2011, he was appointed to the board of directors of the Transportation Investment Corporation, picking up an extra $75,125 (and counting).

      There was his $91,192 payment in 2013 with Columbia Power, to advise the “CEO on strategic planning, corporate development and organizational performance”. The $280,000 per year CEO at the time was Jane Bird.

      In June, Fairbairn was appointed to the Capital Regional District's wastewater treatment project panel, chaired by Bird.

      Sometimes direct-award contracts have a funny habit of seeing their value change between the award's announcement and final delivery of the services.

      A few have the temerity to suggest that lowballing the value of work at the outset may occasionally be done as a means to circumvent government rules on direct awards.

      One of the more audacious examples was highlighted in the comptroller general’s report on the 2012 health ministry firings.

      The ministry directly awarded a $25,000 research contract on an Alzheimer’s drug therapy and then later hiked its value to nearly $2.4 million without putting it back out to public tender.

      Here's an idea. Instead of requiring media outlets to file access-to-information requests to obtain partially redacted lists of direct-award contracts, perhaps B.C. should rip a page from Alberta's playbook and simply disclose direct awards routinely online.