An Energy, Mines and Resources official flew to ATCO headquarters in Calgary six times in seven months to discuss a possible merger with the publicly owned Yukon Energy Corporation.
But these are not considered negotiations, government officials said Tuesday.
Instead, the government calls them “scoping out discussions” and “preliminary talks.”
And until these talks evolved into something substantial enough to send to cabinet for a bona fide government-mandated green light to negotiate, Yukoners had no right to hear about them.
“We were still in the analyzing phase of this,” said Shirley Abercrombie, the Energy, Mines and Resources official tasked by Fentie to lead the ATCO talks.
A confidentiality agreement pushed by ATCO and signed by the government kept the talks restricted to a closed circle of EMR officials.
“We were fully prepared to go out and talk about this once we knew whether or not we had some kind of arrangement or not,” said Abercrombie, the deputy assistant minister.
“This is the fourth or fifth time this has been tried and it hasn’t gone anywhere, so I think before we went out to the public on this we wanted to see if we had anything,” she said.
The secrecy of the ATCO talks was one of the serious allegations the government tried to address at Tuesday’s press conference on the scandal.
Fentie was only there to make a brief statement and declined to take any questions on whether he breached parliamentary procedure by not properly informing the ministers involved.
“I’ve answered all questions,” said Fentie, getting up from his chair.
But he hadn’t answered any.
He didn’t answer whether he properly told the minister in charge of Yukon Energy, Jim Kenyon, about the ATCO talks.
Or whether Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers had been properly informed about the Calgary meetings.
Fentie also didn’t clear up why the president of Yukon Energy was told about the talks but the board of directors, who fiercely opposed the discussions, were denied meetings with the ministers.
This was a technical briefing, said Fentie, whose only statement was a brief partisan attack on the opposition for calling the premier secretive.
Instead of attending, Fentie left Abercrombie and Executive Council Office deputy minister Janet Moodie to answer questions.
“Have a nice day,” he told reporters.
But most of the serious questions still lie at Fentie’s feet.
A similar bid from ATCO was made to the Northwest Territories government, he said during his statement.
But in that territory, Premier Floyd Roland alerted the public in January and appointed a panel of bureaucrats to look at the bid before it would formally be assessed by cabinet and the legislature.
In the Yukon, these kinds of proposals happen all the time and there was no need to tell the public until both sides knew what they wanted, said Abercrombie.
This round of talks began when Fentie received a proposal from ATCO last October.
That’s when the premier put Abercrombie in charge.
Yukon Energy’s lawyer, John Landry, and its longtime chief consultant, Cam Osler, along with a Calgary consultant, joined Abercrombie to represent Yukon at the table.
They were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, swearing them to secrecy during these early discussions.
During this time, Fentie regularly dropped in on the talks to get progress reports.
He also made phone calls to ATCO CEO Nancy Southern, recommending the energy giant make inroads in the Yukon in water and sewer infrastructure.
The only official at Yukon Energy clued in on the talks was the president, David Morrison.
Morrison was supposed to brief the board of directors, despite the fact that the minister is meant to deal with the board, according to the governance structure.
ATCO made two different proposals during the early days of the talks. These proposals involved the sale of Yukon Energy assets, and the government rejected them.
So a merger idea was tossed around in which a new company would assume managerial control of Yukon Energy and ATCO’s current holding in the territory, the smaller Yukon Electrical Company Limited.
The government wrote a draft document on this proposal in late May, which was soon given to Yukon Energy’s president.
When the chair of Yukon Energy got a copy of the document, he called a meeting with other board members, and half of them quit in disgust.
Chair Willard Phelps and others were told by Fentie in December that the talks were not happening, Phelps has said.
And when Phelps broke ranks and soon leaked the seven-page document to the press, ATCO ended the talks, said Abercrombie.
But they could start again.
“In the future, if the government would decide to move forward with the proposal and benefits for the Yukon were recognized, this information would be submitted to government for approval,” said Abercrombie.
Contact James Munson at email@example.com