Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said his cabinet colleague Forest Minister Bruce Ralston acted with “integrity” during the audit of BC Housing after media revealed that Ralston’s wife serves on the board of the non-profit organization at the centre of the controversy.
Miriam Sobrino has been sitting on the board of Atira Women’s Resource Society, BC Housing’s largest contractor, since Sept. 2009. She did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
A report from EY tabled May 8 found several conflicts of interest between Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Womens Resource Society, and her husband Shayne Ramsay, who resigned as BC Housing CEO in September 2022, after more than two decades at its helm.
Atira has challenged key findings of the report and refused a request from BC Housing’s new leadership for “leadership renewal” at Atira.
Atira’s challenge to the findings of the EY report came on behalf of the board and Sobrino co-signed the letter from Atira rejecting the call for leadership renewal. Atira has so far also rejected calls from the province to return $1.9 million deemed surplus by BC Housing.
Ralston, who was not present at the legislature during Question Period, said in an emailed statement that he takes issues of public trust very seriously.
“That’s why I recused myself from all meetings on this topic,” he said. “This means that I was not part of any cabinet decision or discussion on this matter and I did not receive or review any material in advance of the report being made public. That’s what everyone should do in a situation like this.”
Kahlon said Ralston never talked to him about Atira at any stage. When asked whether Sobrino should have recused herself from Atira’s responses, Kahlon said it is appropriate for the board to respond.
“Again, I disagree with their position,” he said. He added that BC Housing is looking at ways to recover the $1.9 million while striking a note of certainty. “We will be getting that $1.9 million back,” he said.
Aitra’s board also previously included former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart’s wife Jeanette Ashe, who ran for the NDP in the Vancouver-Quilchena by-election in April 2022 won by BC United Leader Kevin Falcon. Ashe resigned from Atira’s board on July 11, 2022 to help Kennedy’s campaign.
BC United seized on these connections during Question Period in arguing that government lacks the power to deal with Atira.
“The minister (Kahlon) likes to talk tough in here, but last I checked the friends and insiders at the board of Atira keep telling this minister and this Premier to go away,” Peter Milobar of BC United said. They’re going to do whatever they want. They’re not changing how they do business, because they’ve done nothing wrong, apparently.”
Milobar also drew attention to an on-going civil suit involving Atira. It is one of two parties named by survivors of the so-called Winters Hotel fire in April 2022 that claimed two lives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The automatic sprinkler in the Atira-managed property was turned off following a smaller fire.
Milobar drew attention to the fire in criticizing government’s failure to investigate Atira Property Management, Atira’s for-property management company, which managed the hotel among other single room occupancy hotels.
He said a 2018 report explicitly warned of the financial mismanagement at both Atira and their fully-owned subsidiary, in questioning why government did not investigate Atira Property Management as part of the forensic audit that found the multiple conflicts of interest between Ramsay and Abbott.
Kahlon acknowledged the victims of the fire, but added that he could not comment further because of the on-going court case.
Ministry staff said Atira Property Management will be part of government’s review of Atira.
BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau called for tougher rules around appointments to boards and clearer conflict-of-interest rules, while also appealing for individuals to show higher levels of integrity, when asked whether Sobrino should have recused herself.
“We have to be very clear about conflicts of interest, perceived or real, and always take the proactive step of recusing ourselves from any discussion that the public could perceive as a conflict of interest,” she said.
Furstenau also feared that questions around perceived or real conflicts of interests distract from the larger housing crisis facing British Columbia. The task of BC Housing with its $2 billion budget is to provide housing to some of the most marginalized people in B.C., she said.
“When we have something like this, we lose sight of what work is supposed to be getting done right now,” she said.
Black Press Media has reached out to Sobrino for comment.