The chair of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) has been caught awarding her own company $217,000 in COVID relief payments during the pandemic.
Annette Verschuren, CEO and owner of NRStor Inc. of Toronto, a storage battery company, told MPs Wednesday that she considered the decision proper.
Prior to her appointment in 2019, NRStor received SDTC funding, including a $12,430 grant from Global Affairs Canada and $1.4 million in contracts from Natural Resources Canada.
"It was 18 months before," she testified. "Eighteen months before my appointment as chair NRStor was funded [by SDTC] for a project, yes."
Verschuren clarified her company has not received SDTC funding for any project since her appointment as chair of the foundation.
Nevertheless, Conservative MP Michael Cooper condemned the preferential treatment given to NRStor during the COVID pandemic.
"That company […] received $106,000 in COVID relief payments in 2020, and another $111,000 the following year," he said. "That is inconsistent with what you had previously stated."
"At the time of the board decision on those Covid payments, you recall it was March 2020, it was very difficult," Verschuren testified at the Commons ethics committee. "We were going to lose the investments that we made and the jobs."
According to Blacklock’s Reporter, the SDTC chair did not consider it a conflict of interest. "A conflict of interest is a situation where there is an interest, an influence in terms of a direct conflict," she contends.
Verschuren justified the motion by outlining her concerns on losing jobs from the investments the board made before her appointment.
Conservative MP Larry Brock told the chair she needs a "refresher on what a conflict of interest really means."
Verschuren admitted to making considerable political donations to the Liberals and Conservatives since 2005, reported Blacklock’s Reporter. According to Elections Canada, she donated $10,750 to the Liberal Party and $10,988 to the Conservative Party.
"Did you at any time you were on the board vote on any motions that would have involved your organization NRStor?" asked NDP MP Matthew Green. Verschuren replied: "No."
However, Verschuren admitted to supporting COVID relief payments for companies that previously received grant funding, including NRStor Inc. "There were about 140 companies that were in pretty dire trouble," she argued.
"Do you not consider by moving a motion to provide $217,000 worth of funding to an organization you are the CEO of does not constitute at the very least a perceived conflict of interest if not a very real one?" asked Green.
She replied: "The Covid payments were made as a portfolio of companies. All the conflicts were assumed previously declared."
Green then asked Verschuren whether she refused herself from the COVID funding motion. "I believe I moved the motion," she said.
"Do you regret the decision not to recuse yourself from that?" he asked. Verschuren said she had previously consulted her lawyer.
In a surprise move, Liberal MP Pam Damoff told the chair that "common sense to me would dictate that you would question the legal advice out of purely best practice."
"Given your decades of experience, I’m wondering why you wouldn’t have trusted your own instincts," she said.
Verschuren replied: "At the time, the board sought legal advice on the more than 140 projects." She claimed each company received the same treatment and the same amount in COVID relief.
"It wasn’t necessary to declare the conflict of interests as they had already been declared," added the chair.