Ex board chair who resigned in protest returns to give government free advice on Manitoba Hydro

A prominent Winnipeg business leader who resigned from Manitoba Hydro’s board in a 2018 dispute with the Progressive Conservative government is back helping that government manage the Crown corporation. 

Sandy Riley, who was hand-picked to chair the Manitoba Hydro board in 2016, has now been enlisted to advise Cameron Friesen, the minister in charge of Hydro.

Friesen confirmed that Riley, president and CEO of the Richardson Financial Group, signed a contract earlier this year. He said no money is being exchanged.

“I believe that Mr. Riley offered [to help] and I accepted,” Friesen, who is also the finance minister, said Tuesday. 

“He has signed a contract, of course. He has signed a confidentiality agreement. There is no remuneration involved in his work and he advises on a range of issues.

“And he’s well-qualified to do so as both a leading executive in the province of Manitoba with extensive business experience but also extensive governance experience, a former chair of Hydro, a former chair of numerous organizations.”

Dispute with Pallister

Riley’s last formal attempt to aid Hydro’s operations ended in a public falling out with the Progressive Conservative government.

Riley was part of a mass resignation of all board members except one — the sitting MLA on the board — in March 2018, following disagreements with then-premier Brian Pallister.

At the time, Pallister argued the Crown corporation’s board resigned because it disagreed with the government’s refusal to pay the Manitoba Métis Federation $70 million as compensation for support of future Hydro development. 

But in written correspondence sent after the resignation, Riley said the board was frustrated it couldn’t meet with the premier to discuss serious policy issues.

Riley’s new arrangement is with the same Tory government, but under different leadership. Heather Stefanson became premier 11 months ago, and Riley donated to her leadership campaign. 

Cameron Friesen, the minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, says Riley has a lot of expertise to offer in the operation of the Crown corporation. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Friesen said he’s in conversation with Riley every few weeks. 

The former Hydro chairperson can offer advice in a range of areas, ranging from the corporation’s $24-billion debt to contract negotiations with other jurisdictions that buy Manitoba’s hydroelectricity, Friesen said.

The NDP quizzed the government on Riley’s involvement in Hydro during an estimates committee hearing on Monday.

The Opposition party isn’t thrilled with Riley’s involvement. It was under his tenure as board chair that Hydro sought a rate increase in one year of 7.9 per cent. 

“It’s clear the only thing stopping this government from making Hydro rates unaffordable is the Public Utilities Board,” said Adrien Sala, the NDP’s critic for Manitoba Hydro.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he’s concerned about anyone who isn’t accountable to Manitobans having a say in the running of a massive Crown corporation.

“Do we just have volunteers running Hydro? Do we just have volunteers running our government now?

“As a politician, am I ever gonna be able to ask [Riley] questions at committee about the advice he’s giving to Hydro? I don’t know.”

Friesen argued the new working relationship with Riley is another example of the provincial government forging partnerships “with Manitobans and others who can provide advice and expertise to the government on various issues.” 

Riley did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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