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Rob Shaw: Concerns over MNP worm their way through B.C.'s agriculture ministry

B.C. government's cozy relationship with a single consulting firm raises red flags
B.C.’s opposition parties remain skeptical over claims that safeguards are in place to avoid conflicts of interest when it comes to MNP's administering of grants to various organizations.

The company at the centre of a conflict of interest probe over CleanBC grants also helped award government grants to companies it represents in the agriculture ministry.

Accounting firm MNP administered the BuyBC agriculture grant program for the province last year, while at the same time providing consulting services for the top three grant recipients. Combined, the companies received almost $180,000 in funds that year.

The situation has some parallels to the CleanBC scandal, in which Opposition MLAs alleged MNP blurred the lines between helping the government run two electric vehicle grant programs, while also charging companies “kickback” fees as high as 20 per cent of their grant amounts for advice on how to win money through grant programs.

The legislature has voted to ask the Auditor General to investigate.

MNP says it has conflict of interest firewalls in place and did nothing wrong. The NDP government says the same BuyBC organizations that received grants administered by MNP, also received similar funding last year when MNP was not part of the program.

But B.C.’s opposition parties remain skeptical.

“It’s pretty clear there’s a web of consultants here that are pretty happy to spend government’s money and they’ve set up some pretty elaborate structures for them to be able to actually do that,” said Green MLA Adam Olsen.

Olsen said the BuyBC murkiness highlights why Premier David Eby should be instructing all ministries to review the involvement of private consulting firms in grant programs.

At a minimum, government should enact policy changes to either administer grant programs internally or ensure private companies can’t work both sides of the transaction, he said.

“What I’d hope to see is that if the government is going to contract MNP to do this, and there’s legitimate questions about whether they should do that, then there should be clauses in the contract that MNP can’t provide any other services for the grants they are administrating,” said Olsen.

“MNP should just be choosing either to provide the consulting fees or administer the program.”

MNP provides a vast array of accounting, auditing, project management, consulting and writing services across government. It was paid almost $14 million last year by the province, according to year-end public accounts. MNP is part of what is considered the ‘big four’ private firms doing business with the B.C. government, including Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young.

MNP began administering BuyBC Partnership grants in 2023. The program sets aside $2 million annually to help raise consumer awareness of British Columbian-grown food.

The Wine Growers of BC received the most of any organization, at $75,000.

The Wine Growers hired MNP as a consultant to help prepare a report to government on the state of the wine sector in 2023, after a harmful cold snap. The report included advice on potential financial aid packages and alterations to other government assistance programs.

MNP’s work was pushed directly to Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis’s office by former NDP cabinet minister Moe Sihota, who was employed by the Wine Growers as a lobbyist and who met with Alexis’s chief of staff at least nine times in one year.

At one point, after a meeting with Alexis herself in 2023, Sihota emailed ministry officials directly to distribute an MNP-authored PowerPoint. An MNP official in the email chain thanked Sihota for the chance to work on the project.

The second-largest grant recipient was the BC Chicken Marketing Board, which received $65,000. It hired MNP to consult on the cost of chicken farming.

The third-largest BuyBC recipient was BC Food & Beverage, of which MNP is a member and provides advice to other member companies.

“MNP’s policies and procedures prohibit employees from providing grant writing services for any program we administer,” MNP said in a statement.

“Our program administration work on behalf of BuyBC is no different.

“MNP has never provided grant writing or application support for any clients of the grants that we administer.”

But MNP can, in its own words, “guide” companies on how to apply for grants it administers, even when it can’t write the applications directly. The company’s head of agriculture in B.C., AJ Gill, said so on the Farms in BC podcast one month ago.

“Our consulting group works with a lot of these grants,” said Gill.

“Some of them we can’t work directly, the producers have to apply for them, but we can guide them and let them know what it’s all about. And there’s others we can get involved and often apply for.”

Gill has unique insight into the world of publicly funded agriculture grants. Before joining MNP to lead its BC agriculture division in 2020, he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture to develop grant programs like AgriStability.

Olsen said it’s unclear to him the difference between MNP being paid to write a grant for a company on a grant it administers or simply consulting on how to write that grant without putting actual pen to paper.

“From that kind of scenario it could very well be, no they are not going to write it for you, but let's open the application together on your desktop and we’ll go through each question,” he said.

“Maybe technically MNP is not writing the grant … but in the world of technicalities and questionable business approaches, it’s a mess.”

The NDP government has been reeling from the MNP scandal for more than a week, with the appearance it is not properly safeguarding public funds from ambitious private companies.

NDP officials suggest the three major agriculture organizations — Wine Growers, Chicken Marketing Board and BC Food & Beverage — would probably get annual grants no matter who was administering the program.

“The public service has been doing due diligence and looking at other MNP grant programs to ensure there is appropriate oversight,” the premier’s office said in a statement.

“We’ve asked the auditor general and the comptroller general to investigate these two MNP administered programs and they have the ability to expand their investigations into any aspect they deem appropriate. We support their work.”

However, the NDP faces extreme difficulty in getting its arms around the vast reach of MNP to check on the company’s operations. MNP not only contracts services to those two watchdogs, it also helps provide auditing to the legislative assembly itself.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

[email protected]

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