B.C. government hangs up on Bell complaint

FOI request reveals response to disputed $1 billion telecom contract

Bell Canada’s (TSX:BCE) complaint over the way the B.C. government awarded a $1 billion, 10-year omnibus telecommunications contract to Telus (TSX:T) was dismissed by the comptroller general, Business in Vancouver has learned.

On June 29, 2011, the government published a notice of intent to make a direct award to Telus, which was already the successful bidder on all nine contracts offered under the Strategic Telecommunications Services Procurement Project (NRFP).

The two sides, however, couldn’t agree on terms under the NRFP, which was scrapped. A government news release claimed its “needs were changing and the NRFP would have no longer satisfied these needs. As a result of these changing needs, the Province and its partners made a strategic decision to negotiate a contract with a broader scope of services, in effect buying in bulk in an effort to maximize value for taxpayers.”

The tendering process was originally announced December 22, 2008. It involved providing telecommunications services to government ministries, agencies and Crown corporations and regional health authorities.

Dissatisfied bidders were given until July 13, 2011, to complain to the Citizens’ Services Ministry. Among the many complaints was a letter from Bell’s senior vice-president of sales Mario Belanger, who alleged that the government contravened national and international trade agreements and its own policies and procedures.

“This assessment is not consistent with the regulatory framework for telecommunications in Canada, and has not been tested by a competitive bidding process,” Belanger wrote. “The decision runs contrary to the duty of fairness owed to all bidders participating in a competitive procurement process. The decision will have a material adverse effect on the availability of competitive communications services in the Province for consumers, small businesses, governments and enterprises.”

A freedom of information request to the finance ministry for all reports since January 1, 2011, about the vendor complaint review process (VCRP) yielded only one page: an April 24, 2012, letter from Comptroller General Stuart Newton to Bell lawyer Thomas A. Sides of Fraser Milner Casgrain in Edmonton.

“The decisions relating to the direct award to Telus were made by Cabinet and Treasury Board. As the decisions of Cabinet and Treasury Board fall outside the scope of the VCRP, this office is unable to review the complaint,” Newton wrote to Sides.

“Accordingly, the complaint is dismissed and no further action will be taken by this office in relation to it.”

Newton’s letter refers to a March 16 letter from his office to Bell, but the government did not disclose it to BIV. Sides did not immediately respond to a BIV interview request. Belanger said, via email, “we are not prepared to comment at this time.”

While Bell pursued the procurement complaint during 2012’s first quarter, the B.C. government made the controversial decision to cancel Telus’ $35 million to $40 million agreement for naming rights to BC Place Stadium.

Telus had installed $10 million to $15 million worth of screens, Wi-Fi and telephone equipment at BC Place, which was to be rechristened Telus Park. The stadium’s main tenant is the Bell-sponsored Vancouver Whitecaps. •

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