OTTAWA - The federal New Democrats are raising fresh questions about Conservative ties at the newly created Oshawa Port Authority, the company building an ethanol plant on the waterfront and now the business that loads and unloads ships in the harbour.
The port authority's board of directors recently approved a proposal to build an ethanol refinery on Oshawa's harbour, despite opposition from the city's council.
Oshawa city council and NDP MP Olivia Chow have both asked federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to look into whether the Conservatives stacked the port authority's board with political allies to allow FarmTech Energy Corp., a company with Tory links, to build the plant.
"It is possible that such preferential treatment resulted in FarmTech Energy Corp. receiving the approval to build an ethanol refinery on the Oshawa waterfront against the wishes of the Oshawa City Council and the Durham Regional Council," Chow wrote in her Aug. 29 letter of complaint.
Dawson's office confirmed that they received Chow's request this week.
"She is reviewing the request and no investigation has been launched at this time," spokeswoman Jocelyne Brisebois said in an email. She refused to comment any further.
Five of the port authority's seven board members are appointed by the federal transport minister, four of them nominated by port users. The city and the province each have one appointee.
Chow is taking issue with the fact that four of the members have ties to local Conservatives, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and the Conservative riding association in his riding of Whitby-Oshawa.
Port authority chair Gary Valcour stepped down this year as president of the Conservative riding association in Whitby-Oshawa. Another port authority director, Chris Kluczewski, was a member of the association's executive.
Two more directors, Peter Singh and Norm Mackie, have donated money to the party or local Tory candidates in the past.
Valcour said the board would not comment on what he called "unfounded allegations, innuendo or politically motivated smears."
Singh, for his part, said he doesn't consider himself to be in a conflict of interest. The retired lawyer from Ajax, Ont., said he has supported the Liberals in the past and doesn't consider himself politically connected.
"The federal appointment came right from Ottawa, and I was surprised there was even a port in Oshawa," he said. "I had to read up on it after I got a call."
Neither Kluczewski nor Mackie responded to individual requests for an interview.
Flaherty spokesman Chisholm Pothier said all the board members are qualified for their jobs, regardless of their political pasts.
"In any community there will be overlapping relationships between local representatives of government, business and the community," Pothier said.
"Those relationships do not prevent qualified people from being appointed to government roles. All the people appointed to the Oshawa Port Authority are well qualified."
In an interview Friday, Chow said she suspects something else is at play.
"It's a classic case of Conservatives taking care of their insider friends," she said. "Fundraisers, riding association presidents, campaign managers. It's just unacceptable behaviour."
She is also raising questions about Tory connections to FarmTech, the company building the ethanol plant, and Oshawa Stevedoring Inc. — the business that has an exclusive deal to load and unload ships in the harbour.
Former FarmTech director Timothy O'Connor was once a member of the Whitby-Oshawa riding association. He also worked as campaign director for Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Christine Elliott, who is married to Flaherty.
Although Timothy O'Connor is no longer with FarmTech, his brother, Dan, remains the company's president and chief executive officer.
Dan O'Connor called the NDP's claims "baseless and irresponsible."
"I'm disappointed that Ms. Chow, as a member of Parliament, would engage in such shameless and self serving antics," he said in an email.
"Had she or any of the other people making these allegations actually done their homework — instead of jumping on the reputation-bashing bandwagon — they would have known that FarmTech had an option to lease with the board of the Oshawa Harbour Commission dating back to 2007. A board, I might add, that was completely different than the current board of the Oshawa Port Authority."
The company had a binding legal agreement that entitled it to lease the industrial property, he added, and the current board would be obligated to adhere to that agreement regardless of political makeup.
Dan O'Connor also came to his brother's defence.
"As for my brother he has been involved in politics for decades, as well as many other volunteer positions in our community including sitting on the board of the Brooklin Spring Fair, 4 H Clubs of Ontario and his church," he wrote.
"I have five brothers, am I supposed to ask them to abandon their own passions while I pursue a private venture for fear their might be some perceived conflict? I think not, that would certainly not benefit the community."
Meanwhile, the manager of Oshawa Stevedoring Inc., Frank Robertson, is the current president of the Whitby-Oshawa Conservative Association. Oshawa Stevedoring has an exclusive operating agreement with the Port of Oshawa.
Reached on his cell phone Thursday afternoon, Robertson had little to say about the NDP's claims.
"That's a good question," he said when asked about a possible conflict of interest.
Robertson then asked if he could call a reporter back, which he did not do. He followed up Friday morning with an email.
"I have a job as a stevedore and I volunteer with the riding association," Robertson wrote. "I don't have anything to do, or any influence over, decision of the Port Authority or FarmTech."
Valcour also dismissed any suggestion of impropriety on the port authority's part.
"For the record, the contract between the Port of Oshawa and the stevedoring firm has been in place since the early 1990's, long before any of the current board members were in office and long before the FarmTech project arose," he said in an email.