Annette Verschuren resigned shortly after the ethics commissioner said he would investigate her over allegations of breaching the Conflict of Interest Act.
By Noé Chartier
The board chair of an embattled federal green fund has handed in her resignation shortly after being told by the ethics commissioner she was under investigation.
Annette Verschuren, who had been the chair of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) since 2019, told Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne she would depart on Dec. 1.
“While I have faithfully and fully committed myself and my decision-making to serve the organization’s best interests, it is time for me to step aside,” she reportedly wrote in her resignation letter.
Interim Ethics Commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein said in a Nov. 16 letter he would investigate Ms. Verschuren over allegations of breaches to the Conflict of Interest Act.
Ms. Verschuren had moved a motion for the board to approve COVID-19 relief payments to companies supported by SDTC, including NRStor, of which she is the CEO and the beneficial owner.
NRStor received $106,000 in 2020 and $111,000 in 2021. Ms. Verschuren testified at the House of Commons ethics committee on Nov. 8 and said SDTC had received a legal opinion that conflict of interest rules were not being breached.
Scrutiny of SDTC, an arms-length federal not-for-profit agency funding green technologies, began in early 2023 following whistleblower allegations against its leadership.
Innovation Canada commissioned a fact-finding exercise with third-party firm Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton (RCGT) in March. The firm found that conflict of interest rules had not been “consistently followed.”
After the government received the report, it ordered that SDTC freeze the funding of new projects and gave the agency a management response and action plan.
“Continuous improvement is the foundation of any successful organization and these evaluations have provided useful recommendations for improving procedures, which we wholeheartedly accept. We can always do better,” wrote Ms. Verschuren in her resignation letter.
Ms. Verschuren resigned a few days after SDTC president and CEO Leah Lawrence did the same. Ms. Lawrence also testified at the ethics committee and said she had not recused herself when SDTC was discussing funding a project involving one of her friends.
“Given recent media reports, House of Commons committee testimony, and the surrounding controversy, it is clear there has been a sustained and malicious campaign to undermine my leadership,” Ms. Lawrence said in her resignation letter.
Industry Minister Responds
Conservative MPs had previously criticized Mr. Champagne for not firing anyone at SDTC over the findings from the RCGT report.
“I would certainly caution members of this committee to apply due process when they’re looking at allegations,” Mr. Champagne had said when he appeared before the ethics committee on Nov. 6.
Mr. Champagne’s office says the minister has accepted the resignations of Ms. Verschuren and Ms. Lawrence “to allow the organization to move forward,” and that the process to replace them will start soon.
“The Minister is committed to ensuring that organizations which receive federal funding adhere to the highest of standards of governance,” said Mr. Champagne’s press secretary Audrey Champoux in a statement. “That’s why he’s determined to get to the bottom of allegations related to SDTC.”
Along with the Ethics Commissioner looking into SDTC, the Office of the Auditor General is also reviewing how the agency funds green projects.
SDTC reported in its latest annual report that it approved $196.4 million in funding during fiscal year 2022–2023 and disbursed $133.2 million to funded projects.
“Now the president and chair of Trudeau’s $1 billion slush fund have resigned,” wrote Tory Leader Pierre Poilievre on social media on Nov. 19. “The Liberals must answer for this outrageous scandal.”