Powell River businessperson, sheep farmer and former Liberal MLA Judi Tyabji was in the New Democratic Party opposition crosshairs during question period in the provincial legislature on Thursday, March 10, over conflict-of-interest allegations. The allegations are in connection with job-creation grants awarded to a non-profit society of which Tyabji is president.
“They’re ridiculous and disappointing,” said Tyabji. “They’re effectively taking two projects I did that were involved in value-added agriculture and promoting sustainable behaviour and they’ve twisted the information to try to make it out to be some sort of story about political corruption.”
The two projects involve grants for social enterprises in Powell River.
Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons said the reason Tyabji was singled out in the legislature is because of the results of a Freedom of Information request received by the NDP.
“Maybe she is calling it a case of political corruption, and maybe there is more to the story,” said Simons, “but I see it as a case of clear conflict of interest.”
At the centre of the controversy is Pebble in the Pond Environmental Society. The society applied for and received an initial $128,000 grant in June 2014 for a social enterprise called Tanned, Wild and Woolly, which is promoted as making sheepskin products from natural, environmentally sustainable and ethically raised animals.
The grant was awarded through the Job Creation Partnership (JCP) funded by the BC and federal governments. The program is intended to provide skills training for people who are or have been on employment insurance. The Tanned, Wild and Woolly JCP ended in March 2015.
Tyabji claimed the program was beneficial to the community.
“Five people were trained. Lots of small businesses benefited because we purchased things. We put a lot of money into Powell River,” said Tyabji. “It should have been a good news story.”
According to Tyabji, the NDP has twisted her involvement in the society into a story about conflict of interest. Simons said the NDP brought the matter up in public because grants awarded should be based on merit and without conflict of interest.
“When there are questions, we will raise them,” said Simons.
Simons said the NDP believes Tyabji may have personally benefited from the Tanned, Wild and Woolly project, which paid her a salary of $67,000 under the initial grant.
During Thursday’s question period, Kootenay West NDP MLA Katrine Conroy pointed out the society hired Tyabji as manager of the project while she was still president of the society.
“The society that Ms. Tyabji Wilson founded decided that the best person to manage this project was, wait for it, Ms. Tyabji Wilson,” said Conroy.
Tyabji claimed there wasn’t anybody else who had the same expertise in sheep farming in the Powell River area. The five-member board, including Tyabji as president, hired her to manage the project.
“It was a decision that was made without me. I didn’t advocate, I didn’t even vote on it,” she said.
Tyabji claimed it is not a coincidence that the NDP is going after her because she is writing a book about Premier Christy Clark, whom she has been friends with since they were both 19 years old.
“They’re trying to go after me before the book comes out to try to diminish its impact,” said Tyabji. The book is scheduled to be published in May.
Simons said it should be obvious that the president of a non-profit society avoids hiring themselves into any paid positions while still on the board. The larger issue, he said, is practices of the current BC government.
“This is mostly about Christy Clark and how her government operates," said Simons, "because despite knowing about the obvious conflict, they awarded the grant anyway.”