The provincial government will investigate Metrolinx’s decision to award contracts worth millions of dollars to a consulting firm while one of the firm’s directors was also serving as an executive at the transit agency.
The announcement from Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office came a day after a Star investigation revealed details of two contracts Boxfish Infrastructure Group, an Ottawa-based consultant firm, won from Metrolinx in 2019 and 2020. At the time, Brian Guest, a director at Boxfish, was assigned to vice-president roles at the publicly funded transit agency.
“We fully expect Metrolinx to carry out procurements in an open, transparent and competitive manner. We are extremely concerned about any perceived or potential conflict of interest and will be investigating the contracts in question,” Dakota Brasier, Mulroney’s press secretary, said in a statement Tuesday. She provided no details about potential timelines or outcomes of the review.
Metrolinx, which is the provincial agency in charge of building major transit projects in the GTHA, has said there was nothing improper about its relationship with Boxfish or Guest, and his position within the agency never posed a conflict of interest.
The agency has declined to reveal details of how much the contracts were worth, saying it needs to protect its ability to receive competitive bids. But records posted to Metrolinx’s procurement website show one of the contracts was worth $11.75 million, which the agency confirmed Tuesday was the maximum amount payable to the company in the contract’s initial year. Contract values are adjusted annually, the agency said.
Boxfish is set to earn between $20 and $30 million from Metrolinx over a two-year period, according to sources.
During the Star investigation, Metrolinx said that it erected firewalls to insulate Guest from procurements, and he never drew a salary from the agency while serving in the executive roles. Instead, Metrolinx paid Boxfish for work Guest and other employees of the firm did for the organization.
“We welcome and are fully supportive of any investigation or review into the award of these contracts,” Metrolinx said in a brief statement Tuesday.
Guest, who is still at Boxfish while he holds the title of lead, strategic initiatives group at Metrolinx, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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The Ontario NDP said the public deserves answers about what it has described as the “bizarre and disturbing arrangement” between Metrolinx and Guest, whose firm also worked on the troubled Ottawa LRT project that is now the subject of a public inquiry.
“Ontarians deserve to know why a supposedly public agency has become overrun with embedded private consultants, including at the executive level. Ontarians deserve to know the details of these secret consulting contracts, and whether these private consultants are serving the public or themselves,” said Ottawa Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden in a statement Tuesday.
NDP transit critic and Humber River-Black Creek MPP Tom Rakocevic said the province’s investigation into the contracts — first reported by the Toronto Sun — needs to be independent, otherwise “this government would be investigating itself. The fox can’t investigate the hen house.”
Under provincial legislation, the minister of transportation oversees Metrolinx.
While working as a consultant for Metrolinx in March 2018, Guest was appointed as the agency’s vice-president of capital projects commercial management, and from October 2019 to May 2020 held the title of executive vice-president of commercial management.
In 2019, Metrolinx gave Boxfish a sole-sourced contract for strategic advice on the provincial subway plan. In April 2020, the firm was one of four successful bidders on a competitive contract for advice on “commercial and business operation matters.” The latter contract was the one valued at $11.75 million over one year. When Boxfish won it, Metrolinx terminated the firm’s 2019 sole-sourced agreement.
Metrolinx says it needs to hire consultants in order to make use of private sector expertise while delivering the massive portfolio of projects it’s responsible for, and says it’s not unusual to assign consultants to roles within the organization so that they work efficiently with agency staff. The agency has said it’s uncommon for a consultant to be assigned a role as senior as vice-president, but in Guest’s case it was necessary to expedite work on the province’s $28.5-billion subway program.
Sources who had spoken to the Star said that since Guest started working for Metrolinx nearly a decade ago, he has exerted a level of influence within the agency that was unusual for a private consultant — a level that some within the agency and wider public sector found concerning because they feared it could lead to conflicts of interest and a lack of accountability.
The sources said the appointment of a private consultant to vice-president roles in a Crown agency prompted alarm from some employees at Metrolinx and the provincial public sector. They said they found it difficult to believe Guest and other Boxfish employees embedded at the organization could effectively be isolated from contract awards.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation for the Star. Reach him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr
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