The minister responsible for fixing P.E.I.’s rural internet acknowledged that local service providers may have been disadvantaged in a recent contract tendering process related to Wi-Fi services for provincial campgrounds.
In response to a question from Green Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, Economic Growth Minister Matthew MacKay admitted to a “potential conflict of interest” related to the tendering process for the contract. The contract would have provided wifi services for eight provincial parks.
"After the contract was awarded, I was made aware of some potential irregularities in the process, with a potential conflict of interest," MacKay said.
"We're doing a complete review right now."
MacKay said the tendering process for the contract involved two review panels – one composed of members within his department and one involving “industry experts.”
MacKay said he signed the agreement with New Brunswick-based Nova Communications on Tuesday morning.
But in an interview, MacKay said information he has since received caused him to reconsider the agreement.
“I got a call Tuesday evening after supper and legislature here. Somebody on the other end of the phone gave me a little information that was quite concerning to me," MacKay said in an interview.
MacKay said he called his deputy minister that evening, who began investigating how the request for proposals had occurred.
"It seems that possibly the local ISPs didn't get a fair shot on the tender process,” MacKay said.
“It's a possible conflict which we're still reviewing now. The employee that was looking after the file has been removed from the file until we do a complete review of it."
He said the proposal submitted by Nova Communications was the best and most detailed proposal submitted. There were six companies in total that submitted proposals, four were P.E.I. ISPs.
MacKay provided few other details of the conflict of interest related to the employee from his department. He indicated some companies had more detailed proposals than local ISPs.
"There might have been some discussions without the local ISPs knowing,” he said.
MacKay admitted this same employee was involved with the negotiation with the $74-million contract signed with Bell and Xplornet related to providing rural internet services to P.E.I. He did not name the employee.
The RFP lists Joseph Rowledge, a senior policy adviser, as the contact with MacKay’s department.
Rowledge was a key figure involved in the negotiation of the Bell and Xplornet contracts. He is also a former Bell Canada employee.
Bevan-Baker said he had raised questions about the contract in the legislature earlier this week. He said he had been informed by local providers that the duration of the tendering process was too short to offer an effective proposal.
Bevan-Baker said the information about a conflict of interest was news to him. He said he did not want to speculate about who may have been involved, but said this information raised concerns about other deals signed related to rural internet improvements on P.E.I.
He noted that Nova Communications is partly owned by Bell. The company lists Bell Canada as a “long-standing partner” for cellular and public safety networks.
"There are a couple of people who have attached to the internet file all along. I presume it's one of those individuals who the minister is speaking about," Bevan-Baker said.
"If there is a conflict of interest in this case, given that this company, as I understand it, is more than 50 per cent owned and controlled by Bell, then it brings into question all of the previous contracts that have been signed by this government."