Auditor general to probe conflict of interest allegations in B.C. cleantech grant program

The B.C. government is directing the province’s auditor general and its comptroller general to probe allegations of a conflict of interest in a clean technology grant program.

The founder of Merritt, B.C.-based Edison Motors, a company developing electric commercial trucks, says his company was pressured by consulting firm MNP LLP to sign up for its grant-writing services, only to discover the company was actually administering the grant program.

“It felt so wrong, almost like a bit of a shakedown,” Chace Barber told Global News.

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Barber said his company had applied for two grants, including one offering money to explore the electrification of heavy-duty trucks.

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Barber said he was surprised the applications were rejected because Edison Motors is the only company in B.C. manufacturing commercial heavy-duty electric trucks.

“We were like how did we not get that one?

“And then we realized once we got declined that the grant was administered by MNP. And MNP was reaching out before to try and get us to write the grants.”

Barber said the company felt it had no choice but to pay MNP’s “crazy high fees” for grant-writing services, which the company allegedly takes in the form of a 20-per cent “success fee” on successful applications.

Last week, B.C.’s opposition parties pressed the province to have the auditor general probe MNP’s administration of the Electric Advanced Research and Commercialization program and the Go Electric Commercial Vehicle Pilots program but were voted down in the legislature.

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On Monday, Energy and Mines Minister Josie Osborne said the government had received “new information” on Sunday that prompted it to reverse course.

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“In the case of these two grant programs, not only is a company like MNP administering the grant programs on behalf of government not permitted to ask for or request any kind of consulting fee or lobbying fee, but any grant dollars that are awarded are not permitted to be used for any kind of fee like that,” she said.

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Osborne said her office had previously spoken with MNP and been assured that the company knew and was following the rules. She said it had originally appeared that the conversation Edison Motors was having with MNP was around a grant program the company was not involved in administering.

Osborne would not say what new information had emerged Sunday to change that impression.

She could not offer a timeline on how long the probes would take but said MNP had been suspended from administering the two grant programs while the investigation was underway.

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“British Columbians want to ensure that people are being treated fairly and that the public interest is being met, and that’s why we are taking action,” she said.

MNP said in a statement that legal restrictions barred it from commenting on specific grant applications under programs it administers.

But it said allegations that one of its teams in B.C. acted as both administrator and consultant for grants under the CleanBC program were “false and misleading.”

“Many firms provide grant administration and grant-writing services to assist clients. Professional services firms that provide these services, including MNP, have policies and procedures to address potential conflicts of interest,” the company said.

“MNP’s policies and procedures prohibit team members from providing grant-writing services for the programs we administer. Our program administration work on behalf of CleanBC is no different.”

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In a social media post, BC United MLA and opposition critic for Environment, Climate Change, Technology and Innovation Renee Merrifield called the situation a “kickback coverup.”

“The BC NDP voted against this motion after shutting down a vote at the Public Accounts Committee. All of this was months after the Minister of Energy and Mines was personally made aware,” she wrote.

“Barber, meanwhile, said his company just wants a fair shot, and that he wants to see small B.C. companies be the ones to benefit from provincial clean energy programs.”

BC Conservative Leader John Rustad called for an RCMP investigation into “allegations of corruption” in the grant program.

“We don’t know why this alleged self-dealing by MNP was allowed to happen, but we do know that MNP has lobbied Premier Eby’s government and was allowed to distribute these funds,” Rustad said in a media release.

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“I would like the investigation to just go into hey, where are we lacking for supporting local businesses, how come local companies like ours … how come all of these companies are falling between this crack?” he said.

“Does hiring MNP have something to do with that? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not saying that. But something needs to be looked at because the way it is being done is really, really wrong.”

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