Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ATCO unit gets untendered Haiti project

Canada's signature aid project in Haiti will be carried out by a company with ties to the Conservative Party after being awarded the multimillion-dollar contract without a public bidding process.

A subsidiary of Calgary-based ATCO Ltd., which has three Conservative donors on its board of directors, was handed the $12-million contract to build temporary offices in Port-au-Prince for the Haitian government.

Ottawa has been angling to build that shelter since the week after the earthquake, with officials immediately urging Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive to let Canada take the lead on such a project.

The project was eventually announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who made the commitment the centrepiece of his own visit to Haiti last month.

The federal government opted to bypass procurement guidelines that usually require government contracts of more than $25,000 to be submitted to a public tendering process.

It also chose not to post an advance contract award notice, which in cases where there is no tendering process normally gives rival businesses an opportunity to submit counter-proposals.

The government said desperate times in Haiti called for such measures.

"Given the urgency of the situation in Haiti and the tight timelines, this contract may be awarded under … emergency contracting authorities," the Public Works Department said in an email.

The contract was awarded to ATCO Structures and Logistics, which the department said was "the only known firm with the necessary expertise and immediate capacity to deliver a rapid turnkey solution."

The company has extensive experience with such projects, having performed similar work for NATO and the United Nations in both Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Board members have political ties

ATCO Ltd. also has significant political connections.

The chair of the board, Ronald D. Southern, has donated $3,750 to the Conservative party since 2007, including a $750 to Harper's 2008 riding campaign in Calgary Southwest.

The board also includes Don Mazankowski, a finance minister under former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who has donated $1,350 to the Conservatives since 2007.

The company's corporate director, Robert T. Booth, made a $411 contribution to Peter MacKay's re-election campaign in 2008.

Public Works Canada said political ties had no influence on their decision. It said no other company was ever considered.

The opposition, however, said the process should have been more transparent.

"The principle of having tenders is pretty basic to Canadian public policy," said Bob Rae, the Liberal foreign affairs critic. "We all know that time is of the essence, but that's no excuse for excluding tenders altogether."

ATCO is one of Calgary's major employers and boasts more than 7,500 workers worldwide in sectors ranging from construction to energy to building maintenance.

Its structures and logistics unit has provided temporary shelter and operational support for several foreign missions, including at Kandahar airfield, where most of Canada's 2,800 troops in Afghanistan are based.

An executive at the subsidiary declined to comment on political ties but said it was federal officials at the Canadian International Development Agency who first contacted the company about the Haiti project. He said the company has a long history of providing services quickly in hostile environments, including in the aftermath of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake.

"What we're trying to accomplish here [in Haiti] is bring over the expertise we have in terms of the rapid deployment, but definitely use as much local involvement as we possible can," said George Lidgett, executive vice-president of operations.

ATCO will be providing temporary office buildings at three different sites in Port-au-Prince, accommodating some 500 Haitian public servants from various ministries.

The Haitian government lost several buildings in the Jan. 12 quake, including the presidential palace, the Education Ministry and other government departments.

The temporary buildings being put up by ATCO are designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. They are to begin arriving this week.

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