The issue: Conflict of interest
We say: Legislation should include MLA candidates owing money to government from running
One curious item that went without discussion during last week’s attempt to remove Katrina Nokleby from cabinet was how Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson came to second the motion.
For anyone keeping score, Simpson was elected to the legislative assembly last fall owing nearly $2 million to the NWT Business Development and Investment Corporation (BDIC). Nokleby, as minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI), is responsible for the BDIC, and as such, is where the buck stops when it comes to ensuring debts owed to it are being collected.
It was an obvious conflict of interest but that didn’t stop Simpson from putting his name to MLAs’ attempts to remove the minister, nor MLAs from turning a blind eye to his inclusion in the effort.
When Simpson’s debt first became public – three days after defeating former ITI minister Wally Schumann in last fall’s territorial election — Northern News Services asked him whether he could effectively represent his constituents while owing such an enormous sum to the GNWT.
He insisted his business problems have nothing to do with his job as an MLA.
“That’s Concept Energy,” he said, referring to the company he owns, which had taken out the loan from the BDIC in 2011.
The thing is people instinctively know there is little daylight between a person and their business. MLAs understood that when they passed the Local Authorities Education Act in 1988.
The legislation forbids NWT residents from standing for election to a community government council if they – or the corporation they control – owes the community government more than $500 for more than 90 days.
The reasons are obvious. A mayor or town councillor whose business owes the town they’re governing money has a business – and personal — interest in seeing that debt disappear, and one potential way to make that debt disappear is to control the entity you owe money. This is conflict of interest 101.
Thus, when Simpson seconds a motion calling for the removal of the minister in charge of his debt, that might as well have been Concept Energy seconding the motion.
Likewise, his failure to publicly disclose that he owed money to the BDIC during last fall’s territorial election, means Wally Schumann – who was minister of the agency at the time and thus, bound not to speak of the debt because it was before the courts — could argue he wasn’t just in a race against Rocky Simpson but Concept Energy as well.
There is no shame in a business losing money borrowed from the government. Business owners take major risks every day in an effort to create jobs and investment. Northerners expect government to support businesses because of the necessary risks they’re required to take in an effort to grow.
Undoubtedly, there will be piles of unpaid debt owed to the government once the carnage of Covid-19 has been fully assessed. The private sector is strewn with minefields no one can predict.
But that’s why we have conflict of interest rules. They’re there to help honest people ward off potential trouble should they be beckoned by the call of political office.
For some reason, MLAs never extended the conflict rules they put in place for people seeking municipal office to include candidates for the legislative assembly. This is a major oversight.
Simpson could’ve avoided his conflicts had the rules been there to prevent him from running while owing money. His money woes also entangle his son, RJ Simpson, a former general manager at Concept and now a cabinet minister sitting across from him in the legislative assembly.
If Rocky Simpson wants to put his name to something that demonstrates good faith, it ought to be legislation that forbids candidates running for MLA if they owe the government money.
No one could argue Concept Energy was behind that one.