Ethics Commissioner Launches Investigation into SDTC Chair Over Grant Approvals

Sustainable Technology Development Canada board chair Annette Verschuren, pictured in 2021. The federal ethics commissioner has launched an investigation after she participated in the approval of more than $200,000 in grants to a private firm she directed. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The federal Ethics Commissioner, Konrad von Finckenstein, has initiated an investigation into Annette Verschuren, the chair of the Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) board. This inquiry follows revelations that Verschuren, who is also the chair and CEO of NRStor Inc., a Toronto-based energy storage firm, played a role in approving over $200,000 in grants to her own company.

Conflict of Interest Concerns

The controversy surfaced when Verschuren confirmed her involvement in grant approvals to NRStor, totaling $217,000 in 2020 and 2021, despite her executive position at the firm. The grants were part of SDTC’s $40 million initiative to support businesses with existing funding arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conservative MP Damien Kurek, left, talks with NDP MP Matthew Green prior to the start of an ethics committee meeting in Ottawa on July 22, 2020. Green had some pointed questions for the chair of a federal green fund regarding her participation in a decision to award grants to her own firm. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Parliamentary Scrutiny

Verschuren’s actions drew criticism during a parliamentary committee hearing last week. MPs questioned the ethics of her decision, despite Verschuren citing a legal opinion that ostensibly validated her actions. She stated, “I took the advice from my lawyer. I received legal advice and I think that was the proper approach.” She also argued that NRStor did not receive preferential treatment, as it was among approximately 100 companies that benefited similarly from SDTC during the pandemic.

Criticism from MPs

NDP MP Matthew Green highlighted the issue as “at the very least a perceived conflict of interest, if not a very real one.” Liberal MP Pam Damoff expressed disappointment in Verschuren’s judgment, asserting that common sense should have led her to recuse herself from decisions benefiting her company.

Leah Lawrence has resigned as the head of Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

SDTC Leadership and Challenges

This investigation compounds the challenges faced by SDTC. Recently, Leah Lawrence, the president and CEO, tendered her resignation amid increasing scrutiny and criticism of her leadership and the organization. In her resignation letter, Lawrence cited “a sustained and malicious campaign to undermine my leadership,” which she believed compromised her ability to lead.

Government Response

Following a whistleblower complaint earlier this year, the government conducted an investigation that identified issues with conflict of interest management and spending within SDTC. In response, reforms were imposed, and SDTC’s ability to grant new funding was suspended until these changes are implemented.

Ongoing Investigations

The Office of the Auditor General of Canada has also announced its investigation into SDTC’s spending practices. These developments represent a significant challenge for the organization, which is mandated to distribute $1 billion to small and medium-sized enterprises in the clean tech sector between 2021 and 2026.