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BC Liberals spending millions on empty land

'Clearly there's a conflict of interest,' Granby says

BC’s Liberal government has spent $4.8 million since 2004 paying Vancouver property taxes on land owned by a society fronted by party contributors.

The land in question is on False Creek Flats, frequently touted as the future home of St Paul’s Hospital.

“The government has spent $5 million paying property taxes on land owned by friends of the government,” says Vancouver-West End NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert. “It’s very insider kind of politics going on here.”

St Paul’s first raised the possibility of relocating in 2003, to the dismay of many West End residents. Gay people, seniors and their neighbours formed a coalition to save the hospital. Members expressed concern about the gay village losing vital healthcare services, not to mention a significant portion of Davie St’s economic lifeblood.

Both St Paul’s and the BC Liberals have always insisted that the False Creek move is far from finalized. They have also promised to consult the public before making any decisions.

“It would be my expectation on a project of this magnitude that there will be considerable public consultation,” then-Health Minister George Abbott told Xtra in 2006.

Four years later, neither the BC Liberals nor Providence have held a full public consultation, nor have they made any public announcements about the future of St Paul’s.

But on May 26, Liberal Health Minister Kevin Falcon told the BC legislature that the government has paid $800,000 in taxes each year for the last six years “to keep those [False Creek] lands in reserve for a potential health facility.”

“Whether it ever becomes a healthcare facility, it is certainly a valuable piece of property that could serve the interests of, I think, a government for sure in the future,” Falcon told the House.

The False Creek land belongs to the Vancouver Esperanza Society.

The non-profit society purchased the land in March 2004, one year after Providence Health Care — the Catholic organization that runs St Paul’s under the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority — floated its proposal to relocate the hospital to the area.

A few weeks after Esperanza purchased the land, it gave Providence the right of first refusal to buy it.

The decision to move St Paul’s to False Creek now lies with three bodies: the BC Liberals, Providence Health Care and Vancouver Coastal Health.

All three bodies have ties to the Esperanza Society and to each other.

Providence’s board of directors is now headed by former Liberal attorney general Geoff Plant, while Vancouver Coastal Health is helmed by former Providence chair Kip Woodward.

Woodward’s brother John is one of the principals of Esperanza, according to BC Registry services records. Neither brother could be reached for comment.

Elections BC records show both Woodwards made contributions to the BC Liberal Party.

So did businessman Hugh Magee, also a director of Esperanza.

Magee is chair of GWIL Industries, which donated $7,500 in 2005, while its crane service division donated $13,500 to the Liberal Party between 2005 and 2009, according to Elections BC.

Magee personally donated $300 in 2006. He is also listed as a principal officer of Canada Diagnostic Centres, which donated $500 to the BC Liberals in 2009.

He is also a director of Cambie Surgeries Corporation, a private for-profit Vancouver healthcare facility headed by Dr Brian Day, who donated $2,000 to the Liberal Party, Elections BC records show.

Xtra reached Magee, who asked to be called back later. He could not be reached later for comment.

Kip Woodward is the principal officer of Woodcorp Investments Ltd, a venture capital company, which donated $45,000 to the BC Liberals between 2006 and 2008, according to Elections BC.

Another Esperanza director, Susan House, is also executive director of the Catholic Health Association of BC, a “provincial Catholic organization whose mission is to witness to the healing ministry and abiding presence of Jesus,” according to its website.

That association’s vice-president is Dianne Doyle, who is also the president and chief executive officer of Providence Health Care, which operates St Paul’s.

Together, Esperanza’s principals have links to land development, construction, hospital equipment and privatized medicine businesses.

Along with their relatives, associated companies and operators, they have contributed at least $70,650 to BC Liberal Party coffers since they purchased the land.

And that, says Brent Granby of the Save St Paul’s Coalition, is a conflict of interest that Falcon needs to explain.

Falcon’s office referred questions to the Ministry of Finance, which referred them back to the Ministry of Health, which issued a statement:

“No decisions on the renewal of St Paul’s Hospital have been finalized,” the statement emailed to Xtra says. “Providence Health Care and Vancouver Coastal Health have not yet submitted the business case on the project to the provincial government.”

Providence has been promising to present a “business case” for either relocating or renovating the hospital’s current West End site since 2005.

The Ministry of Health statement says renewal plans for St Paul’s need to be considered in conjunction with health demands and service needs throughout the Lower Mainland. Any plans for St Paul’s would have to go through public engagement and consultation planning first, it adds.

To Granby, the whole situation smells of conflict of interest.

“Clearly there’s a conflict of interest if one of the principal’s own company is giving donations to the Liberals,” he alleges.

“I don’t know why a society would own a piece of land and the government would pay the taxes on it,” he adds.

Granby says the Save St Paul’s Coalition has been trying to meet with Falcon but to no avail.

He says the situation appears to “have a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability.”

There needs to be public discussion about donations to the Liberal Party and appointments to “important boards,” he says.

Abbott told the BC legislature on November 16, 2005, that Providence had retained the right of first refusal to purchase the False Creek site from Esperanza for $24.8 million.

“The province has not been involved in any way around the negotiation of that,” Abbott said, according to Hansard records.

Chandra Herbert doesn’t buy it.

He thinks the government — or at least the Liberal Party — is very much involved.

“Lately, it seems to be getting where decision-making is being done by supporters of the government – insiders, donors, members – rather than members of the community,” Chandra Herbert alleges.

He calls it a “You scratch my back, I scratch yours point of view.”

He wants to know why the decision-making on the future of St Paul’s seems to have become concentrated around the owners of that land.

Interconnected politics has no place in a potential billion-dollar hospital development that could also open up for development an immensely valuable piece of Burrard St property in the heart of downtown Vancouver, he maintains.

Falcon announced Kip Woodward’s appointment to head Vancouver Coastal Health on April 12, the same day Plant was appointed chair of Providence’s board.

Chandra Herbert says he met with Kip Woodward and says the latter made no secret of his interest in privatizing healthcare.

Xtra requested an interview with Kip Woodward through Vancouver Coastal Health but was referred to Providence.

Providence spokesperson Shaf Hussain says no decisions have been made on St Paul’s redevelopment and that the West End site remains on the table.

“What Providence Health Care desires is to deliver its mission, and that’s to take care of our residents and patients,” Hussain says. “There’s no decision that the community needs to be worried about.”

When the time comes to make decisions, he adds, stakeholders and the community will be involved.