Manitoba premier's failure to disclose property sales inadvertent, judge rules

WINNIPEG — A Manitoba judge has ruled that Premier Heather Stefanson failed to disclose the sale of three properties as required by conflict of interest legislation.

However, Justice Anne Turner says there will be no penalty because the failure was inadvertent and did not give the premier any financial advantage.

The court case centred on a corporation that Stefanson held shares in and that sold two apartment complexes and a storage facility.

Stefanson filed forms under the conflict of interest law to show she held shares in the company.

However, she didn't file a different kind of form that shows the purchase or sale of assets when the buildings were sold.

Stefanson apologized a year ago for not filing the form, and the judge agreed that Stefanson did not mean to mislead people.

"On the evidence before me, I have to conclude that Stefanson's failure to file (the form) was inadvertent in that it was an unintended breach of (the law) and was due to inattention," Turner of the Court of King's Bench wrote in her decision.

The properties were sold in 2019 and, while Stefanson didn't file a form disclosing the sale, an ensuing disclosure form no longer listed the properties as among her assets.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont started the court action and asked the judge to suspend the Progressive Conservative premier for 90 days and issue a $5,000 fine.

The judge declined.

"While inattention to the details of legislation is not something (legislature members) should strive for, (the law) clearly mandates that I cannot impose a penalty where a breach of the act was inadvertent."

The judge outright rejected a second claim by Lamont that Stefanson broke the conflict law by not recusing herself from voting on an omnibus bill that included changes to the procedures through which tenants can fight rent increases.

"There is no evidence that Stefanson had any immediate, particular or distinct interest in the proposed amendments beyond that of any landlord of any residential tenant unit in Manitoba. In addition, any tenant of a residential unit in Manitoba would also have similar interest in the proposed amendments," Turner wrote.

"If I were to accept Lamont's position, it would have the potential to create an absurd result. No (legislature member) who held a driver's licence could vote on issues related to the financial aspects of the Highway Traffic Act," the ruling continued.

"No (legislature member) who paid taxes in Manitoba could vote on the Income Tax Act … the examples could go on."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2023.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press