Vancouver mayoral candidate Hector Bremner was working on a client file for the Aquilini Investment Group as recently as March of this year, while he was an NPA city councillor.
But that was not enough for a city hall-hired investigator to find that he broke city hall conflict of interest rules.
In his Oct. 15-dated report, lawyer Henry Wood found “no tangible evidence of a tainting connection” between Bremner and any clients of the Pace Group, the BC Liberal-aligned Gastown public relations and lobbying firm where Bremner was vice-president from early-2015 to mid-2018.
“There is no evidence to suggest that the councillor faced interest that conflicted with his primary duty to act in the public’s best interest when he participated in council’s consideration of the issues that are the subject of complaint,” Wood wrote.
Wood’s report said the two complaints, from ProVancouver city council candidate Mirza Raza and Justin Fung of Housing Action for Local Taxpayers, raised three issues: A provocative proposal to densify so-called “billionaires’ row,” Northwest Point Grey Road, at the Dec. 12, 2017 city council meeting; redevelopment of Northeast False Creek, at meetings of Jan. 31, 2018 and Feb. 13, 2018; and liquor sales in grocery stores, at meetings of March 13, 2018 and April 17, 2018. Bremner recused himself from the latter meeting when he learned an Overwaitea Food Group representative would be speaking. That meeting was five days after theBreaker reported on the conflict of interest complaints submitted to Mayor Gregor Robertson.
Pace clients include the Aquilini Investment Group, Concert Properties, Intracorp, Stantec, Omicron and the B.C. Pavilion Corp. Bremner had also acted for Overwaitea and B.C. Wine Institute two years before he won a city council seat for the NPA in the October 2017 by-election.
“The essence of the complaints is that the business interests of at least those entities created resulting conflicts of interest for Coun. Bremner through his affiliation with the Pace Group,” Wood wrote.
Bremner acknowledged that he has been involved in assisting Overwaitea, B.C. Wine Institute and an Aquilini-owned entity that was not named in the report. The report said that the Aquilini matter, like the other two, was unrelated to City of Vancouver.
“He has assisted in designing communication materials and a public consultation process regarding an Agricultural Land Reserve issue,” Wood wrote. “He continued to have some involvement in that matter until March 2018.”
The Aquilini work was primarily from May 2017 to July 2017. After it was designed, the Aquilinis took over implementation of the plan, “except for updates to the communications materials which Coun. Bremner provided on request until March 2018.”
Bremner’s work with Pace and the investigation were factors in the NPA board’s rejection of Bremner’s application to run for its mayoral nomination. Ken Sim won the nomination in June. Bremner launched his own party, Yes Vancouver, in July. The report was originally expected in mid-September.
In a CKNW interview on Oct. 18, two days before the civic election, Bremner dismissed the complaints as being “written in crayon.” But Wood stated that there was enough merit to investigate. Fung and Raza, he wrote, “raised understandable speculation over the potential for conflicting interests.”
Wood wrote that at the Pace Group, Bremner supported clients including municipalities, first nations, industry and professional associations by developing strategic communications programs. He resigned June 2018, it said. The report said Bremner provided a “comprehensive statutory declaration” sworn by Bremner. That document, however, was not included with Wood’s findings. Wood indicated that he encountered some resistance from the company.
“I had also sought conformation from the Pace Group of certain information provided by Coun. Bremner. The Pace Group responded with a supportive statement that Coun. Bremner had avoided conflicts of interest following his election to Vancouver city council, but they expressed an unwillingness to discus client affairs as a matter of policy. It was in response to this development that Coun. Bremner agreed to provide the statutory declaration referred above.”
The Vancouver Charter says a conflict of interest results from a direct or indirect pecuniary interest in a matter before council or another interest in the matter. Ultimately, Wood applied a “reasonable elector test,” deciding that a “reasonable and well-informed person, once apprised of all the circumstances, would be unlikely to find that Coun. Bremner had a conflicting interest in these matters.”
Wood conceded that his investigation was limited. For instance, it was beyond his scope to perform extensive property searches of Northeast False Creek, though it is well-known that the Aquilinis own Aquilini Centre and Rogers Arena. Their holdings at the Olympic Village are outside the Northeast False Creek plan. The same goes for Concert’s recently-finished Navio, to the east of the Village.
“Among other obstacles,” Wood wrote, “it is virtually impossible to determine whether the properties are being held in trust by other businesses or individuals.”
Fung said it appears the burden of proof is high, but said the laws to keep public officials accountable need to be tightened. “I’m still troubled that someone who effectively worked at a company that specializes in lobbying governments, works in government,” he said.
In August, Bremner was cleared on a technicality of failure to disclose his past as a ministerial aide in the BC Liberal government to the lobbyist registrar. He had been fined $2,000 in February, a fact that he kept secret while he sought a reconsideration related to his February 2015 undertaking for Steelhead LNG.
Registrar Michael McEvoy made a public plea for Attorney General David Eby to solve a loophole because the Bremner case was among several that “represent the very mischief the legislation was designed to eliminate; i.e. the potential for undue influence and the use of insider knowledge in lobbying.”
Bremner got the job in the BC Liberal government in June 2013, after he lost in the New Westminster riding during the May 2013 election. theBreaker exclusively reported that Bremner worked on Christy Clark’s 2011 leadership campaign in which he was copied on emails that contained 99 personal identification numbers for use in the phone and Internet vote to replace Gordon Campbell. The block voting in a proxy process was not prohibited by the party, but it was believed to have played a major role in Clark’s narrow victory over Kevin Falcon in the regionally-weighted, preferential ballot election.
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