Three members of the Stephenville council and the town manager flew back from a conference in Europe on a private jet owned by the billionaire businessman who wants to create a green hydrogen industry in western Newfoundland.
Mayor Tom Rose said they did nothing wrong, and noted that the decision saved money for town residents. On top of that, he said it was a great opportunity for council to discuss economic development opportunities with Nova Scotia businessman John Risley.
“We really didn’t look at it as a gift because there was no personal gain,” Rose told CBC News.
“We were there representing council, and because we signed an MOU, which was technically a business transaction, that we would work together on our cohesive economic deliverables on both sides of the equation. We know that we’ll sit at the table. They ‘re going to want to pay taxes. They want the town to be operating very efficiently.”
Meanwhile, the head of Memorial University’s political science department is raising questions about how all this looks.
“Optics are an issue all the time in politics,” Alex Marland said in an interview.
“And the big issue, of course, is any time we hear public officials interacting with people who are very wealthy, immediately the public sensitivity increases about whether the public’s best interests are at heart.”
World Energy GH2 is aiming to build massive wind farms and produce green hydrogen in the Stephenville-Port au Port area beginning in 2025. A provincial environmental assessment is in progress.
Risley is chairman and CEO of CFFI Ventures Inc., the registered owner of the Bombardier BD-700 1A10 ultra-long-range jet the Stephenville councilors flew on.
Risley is also chairman of World Energy GH2.
Neither Risley nor World Energy GH2 granted an interview.
In a statement, World Energy GH2 said the Stephenville delegation was in Hamburg to learn about what the development of hydrogen might mean for their community.
“The World Energy GH2 team was there as well, and we were happy to be able to offer what were otherwise empty seats for the ride home,” the company noted.
Commercial flight canceled after change in plans
The town delegation to the conference included Rose, Deputy Mayor Susan Fowlow, Coun. Myra White and town manager Colin Maddock. Rose was the only one to grant an interview.
CBC News obtained details of their journey through access to information.
They departed from Deer Lake bound for Hamburg via Air Canada on Sept. 25, and had return tickets booked for Oct. 2.
On Sept. 28, Maddock emailed another town official, to outline a possible change in plans.
“There’s a good chance that we may fly back with John Risely (sic) on Saturday morning (01 October) arriving in Halifax around noon,” Maddock wrote.
“Could you check on possible one-way flights back to Deer Lake on Saturday afternoon. I have checked but it doesn’t look like there is anything.”
They did not manage to find a flight from Halifax to Deer Lake, and instead flew into Gander on WestJet after an overnight stay in Nova Scotia. The delegation paid $450 for a taxi to drive them from Gander to Deer Lake.
Documents released through access to information show that the town got a refund of $8,256 for the canceled tickets.
Returning via Halifax instead of flying into Deer Lake as initially planned costs an additional $3,195 — for taxis, hotel rooms, and airfare.
That results in a net benefit of just over $5,000.
“It saves us money, actually,” Rose said. “We had cancellation insurance, so we saved taxpayers some money. But it was an opportunity for us to be on a corporate jet, to talk to Mr. Risley and his team about their plans and what we could do to help them.”
‘How often is this actually occurring?’
Marland said it’s a good idea to explore and consider opportunities to save taxpayer money, but you have to consider the tradeoffs.
He noted that “this particular wealthy individual has been in the news involving the premier and special access granted to the premier.”
In October, the business and political news website allNewfoundlandLabrador revealed that Premier Andrew Furey had vacationed at Risley’s luxury Labrador fishing lodge last summer.
Furey dismissed Opposition concerns, saying it was a personal vacation that he paid for himself, and he broke no rules, calling it “my time, my dime.”
Marland said the situation involving the Stephenville delegation is a concern, coming on the heels of that other controversy.
“It kind of makes us wonder how often is this actually occurring?” they got
The Stephenville delegation’s trip aboard the jet was a completely different situation, says Rose.
“This is purely economic development, and it’s billionaire companies that are coming in to spend $12 billion,” he said. “And we need to capitalize on that and we need to build relationships. So I’m pretty comfortable with it. Actually, I’m 100 per cent comfortable with it.”
World Energy GH2 did not directly respond to a question about how often politicians and government staff fly on Risley’s jet.