The province’s largest housing contractor has openly challenged key conclusions of a report that detailed a series of conflicts of interest with BC Housing.
The report released Monday (May 8) found several conflicts of interest between Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Womens Resource Society, and her husband, Shayne Ramsay, who resigned as CEO in September 2022, after more than two decades at its helm.
EY, (Ernst and Young) was ordered by then-housing minister David Eby in the summer 2022 to perform a forensic audit on the firm, which is responsible for developing, managing and administering subsidized housing with a budget of $2 billion.
EY found “numerous instances” where Ramsay made decisions that benefited Atira, but not directly himself or Abbott. Ramsay became CEO of BC Housing in 2000, Abbott has headed Attira since 1992 and their relationship started in 2010.
A statement from the Board of Directors of Atira Women’s Resource Society issued early Tuesday morning highlighted that finding of the report.
“It is important to appreciate that neither Atira nor its executive staff benefited financially by expanding and taking on more buildings,” it reads. “To the contrary, as a non-profit organization, Atira’s expansion provided no financial benefit to Atira and was simply an effort to provide more housing to people in need.”
At the same, the statement challenged the accuracy of the report.
“In its submission, Atira pointed out many factual errors in the draft review and it appears those errors were not corrected in the final report released today,” it reads.
Atira does not directly address the central charge in the EY report that the former CEO of BC Housing actively circumvented conflict-of-interest rules for the benefit of a non-profit organization headed by his wife, but instead picks away at some of the headline-making figures.
The report finds that Atira received at least $90 million in public funds between the end of fiscal year and the completion of BC Housing’s most recent financial review and received $35 million more than the next highest provider in 2022 in bypassing BC Housing’s standard approval channels.
Atira said that figure is over-stated by $15 million.
Atira said the report should not receive weight or credibility if the authors remain anoynmous, adding that this makes it impossible to whether they have the necessary skills or whether they are “sufficiently independent” to offer objective opinions.
This “lack of transparency” is “particularly troubling because there is reason to doubt” whether EY is sufficiently objective” given EY’s “long-standing relationship” with the provincial government.
Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said Tuesday (May 9) Atira’s response was “shocking” and shows a “lack of concern” for the information that has been provided. He added that Atira’s response reinforces the government’s response. Inspections of Atira properties will start immediately, he added. “The audit (of Atira) will start very soon, once we have an auditor in place,” he said.
“We are going to make sure that every dollar that’s being spent from the public is being spent in the way that it was intended to do so and that’s the work we are going to have to do,” he said.
Kahlon also indirectly called for changes in the leadership of Atira. He said government’s relationship with its largest contractor to provide affordable housing would be a “lot easier if the board took some action on the finding.”
He later doubled down on that call, when he confirmed the existence of a letter from the current CEO of BC Housing calling for “leadership renewal.” While he stressed BC Housing’s independence, the status quo is unacceptable.
“Certainly, I’ve already made it clear that I’m of the opinion that changes need to happen there,” he said. “It can’t be business as usual.”
The response from Atira to the BC Housing letter was swift and clear.
“We decline to do so at this time and we continue to have confidence in our executive team,” Elva Kim, Atira’s board chair, responded.
BC United, meanwhile, continued their criticism of Premier David Eby.
“The fact of the matter is this, the Premier has his finger prints all over this scandal,” Todd Stone, BC United’s House Leader, said. Stone said Eby buried a critical report that showed serious financial mismanagement at Atira and BC Housing, adding the public only found out about it through a whistleblower.
Stone also accused Eby of misleading the public about the state of BC Housing and his reasons for firing the board when he was minister responsible for housing, as well as having a selective memory about the critical report after returning to cabinet. Eby also sat on the recent EY report for two months before releasing it to the public, Stone added.
“Throughout this entire period, this Premier increases funding at Atira to $90 million,” Stone added. “This is an absolute and complete mess and it is characteristic of how this Premier does business — evasion, blame, finger-pointing and deception.”
Kahlon responded by saying that Eby has been fully transparent, while listing previous failings of BC United.
“What we saw was something inappropriate,” Kahlon said. “We took action. We made the EY report public…that is the level of transparency we do on this side of the House.”