NCC Blunders

Champlain Bridge

Champlain Bridge: NCC chief's persistent dilemma

The Ottawa Citizen -- Final
City March 31, 1997

NCC chief's persistent dilemma
Randall Denley

Starting tomorrow in Federal Court, lawyers for a coalition of local community groups will try to prove that Marcel Beaudry has a conflict of interest that has tainted the decision-making process for the widening of the Champlain Bridge.

They will have a difficult case to make because the chairman of the National Capital Commission is intimately familiar with the legal complexities of conflict of interest.

Unfortunately for Beaudry and the NCC, the burden of proof in the court of public opinion is somewhat lower than in the Federal Court. As evidence, we point to the fact that he was asked to absent himself from key votes on the bridge last fall. Beaudry himself sought a ruling from federal ethics counsellor Howard Wilson, who decided that Beaudry did not have a real conflict of interest but "many will see this situation as an apparent conflict of interest." Beaudry won't comment on his situation now because it is before the courts.

Beaudry acted appropriately in asking the ethics counsellor for a ruling but we wonder why he couldn't have seen the "apparent conflict" for himself? Other public figures have routinely stepped aside when they have found themselves in a similar situation without having to be advised to do so.

The problem, in brief, is Beaudry's interest in 1,000 acres of land available for development, some of it as close as three kilometres from the bridge that the NCC proposes to widen. Beaudry, a veteran developer, contends that improving the bridge will have no positive impact on the value of his land.

The land was transferred to Beaudry's wife when he became NCC chairman. There is no obligation to place it in a blind trust. In testimony leading up to the Federal Court hearing, Beaudry said he was not directly involved in the administration of the company but he regularly drives by the property and notes that lots have been sold.

The NCC's memorandum of fact and law prepared for the trial notes that Beaudry has been a consistent advocate of the three-lane option.

"It is no secret that the chairman favours a three-lane bridge. Nor is it a sin," the federal lawyers say.

Not a sin perhaps, but the question remains as to whether his support for the three-lane option has skewed the process. The federal lawyers will argue the test for bias in a policy-making body is whether the matter has been prejudged to the extent that all other arguments are futile. This is the so-called "closed mind" test. We can't know for sure whether Beaudry's mind was closed or open but he has been remarkably consistent in his public statements. What impact does it have on those in an organization when the boss has identified a preferable outcome?

The problem isn't restricted to Beaudry's Outaouais land holdings. Although Beaudry's various corporate investments have been placed in a blind trust, they are so numerous that that NCC needs a computerized system to track them. According to NCC documents, "the computerized system known as the Conflict of Interest Prevention System (CIPS) triggers a warning if any procurement transaction contemplated gives rise to a potential conflict of interest for the chairman." NCC vice-presidents also have the responsibility to check transactions against a map that shows the whole Beaudry empire.

Where does conflict begin and end? Wilson said Beaudry would have a perceived conflict in regard to the actual bridge decision but not in all the groundwork leading up to it. Now that the decision on bridge width has been taken, Beaudry is free to participate fully in administrative work on the bridge, Wilson says, even though the question of whether it will have two or three lanes hasn't been fully resolved.

Suspicion about Beaudry's role is fueled by the secrecy in which the NCC operates. When he was appointed, Beaudry spoke of opening up the process but it hasn't happened. The NCC continues to make major decisions affecting the lives of local citizens without the decency to open their meetings. This kind of atmosphere breeds suspicion. Whatever the outcome in the Federal Court, the mere fact that citizens can take the NCC to court with a reasonable case to argue bias demonstrates the continuing problem that Beaudry poses for the organization. Any improvements the NCC makes in the Outaouais can lead to similar questions of conflict. It would be better for the integrity of the NCC for Beaudry to decide whether the wants to be a developer or the chairman. If it's the latter, he should sell his property. If the former, it would be timely to resign.

He was also able to cite who he had brought the property from and how much he paid.

Copyright Ottawa Citizen 1997 All Rights Reserved.