Friday, March 25, 2011

Olympics boss gets another board gig with a VANOC contractor

The Rocky Mountaineer was disguised as the Alberta Train during the 2010 Winter Olympics. VANOC CEO John Furlong is now on the board of Rocky Mountaineer.

The gigs keep coming for VANOC chief executive John Furlong.

First he was named chairman of the Own the Podium advisory board after the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Then came last fall's appointment as a director of the reorganized Whistler Blackcomb. Now he is a director of Rocky Mountaineer Railtours, the luxury train that run from North Vancouver to Whistler and Banff.

Furlong's duties with Own the Podium are logical. VANOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee created the high performance funding plan that helped Canadian athletes win a record 14 gold medals at home after giving Canadians golden goose eggs at Montreal 1976 and Calgary 1988.

The other two appointments are worthy of greater scrutiny.

Furlong is not only a director, but chairman of the corporate governance committee for the Toronto Stock Exchange-listed Whistler Blackcomb Holdings. One of his boardmates is Wall Street bigshot Wesley Edens, whose Fortress Investment Group paid the way too high price of $2.8 billion for Whistler Blackcomb parent Intrawest in 2006 and whose Fortress Credit Corporation walked away from financing the Vancouver Olympic Village when the Great Recession began in September 2008. Fortress exploited a loophole in the Olympic Village deal that allowed it to exit because the City of Vancouver promised to complete the project, now in receivership. Intrawest was on its knees in early 2010 and there was even some worry that bailiffs would padlock the Olympic venue.

Whistler Blackcomb reported last fall that it got $32.1 million in its make-whole compensation deal with VANOC, but felt it was shortchanged by $6 million. Whistler Creekside hosted alpine skiing and Blackcomb is site of the Whistler Sliding Centre.

I asked VANOC ethics commissioner Martin Taylor on Nov. 16, 2010 whether his advice had been sought regarding Furlong's role on the board of private sector venue owner Whistler Blackcomb. This was Taylor's answer:

"During the present calendar year I have not been called on by VANOC for advice or ruling on any matter, including that which you mention, nor have I conducted any investigation this year in my capacity as Ethics Commissioner."

We may not know the truth about VANOC's business machinations until 2025 when VANOC meeting minutes and financial statements are unsealed by the City of Vancouver archives. A deal signed by city manager Penny Ballem included a loophole that shields the records from the Freedom of Information act.

Now Furlong, whose name is on a SkyTrain car, is on the board of another tourism company that did business with VANOC and its sponsors.

Peter Armstrong's Gray Line West was listed as the successful proponent for VANOC Request for Proposals 065. The contract size was not disclosed, but it was awarded Nov. 29, 2006. Armstrong bought Gray Line West from Greyhound in 2005, but shut down the Vancouver operation in late 2007. The Victoria and Banff operations remained open.

VANOC's deal with Gray Line shifted to MTR Western, a Seattle company with Oregon-plated, luxury motorcoaches. MTR shuttled official VANOC visitors, including those at the 2008 World Press Briefing, throughout Vancouver and Whistler.

MTR's owner Darren Berg became the Cascadian answer to Bernie Madoff in 2010 when his empire collapsed and he was charged in a Ponzi scheme. He faces trial in October 2011.

Armstrong's company offered VANOC use of its Rocky Mountaineer Railtours rolling stock, which runs on the same BC Rail right-of-way effectively owned by CN Rail. The successful 2003 bid even contemplated using rail to shuttle Games-goers. But the Olympic organization opted to go all rubber-tire for its transport of ticketholders, media and dignitaries from Vancouver to Whistler. (VANOC revealed in December 2010 that it paid $173.5 million for transportation -- $50 million more than budgeted in May 2007!)

Alberta, which became a provincial sponsor of VANOC, did a complex $6 million deal with Rocky Mountaineer to rent its False Creek flats station for parties and to charter its trains for daily round-trips to promote Alberta tourism.

Armstrong is also politically connected, known for delivering loads and loads of cash into B.C. Liberal party coffers.

Elections BC political finance records show that Armstrong and his Rocky Mountaineer Railtours and Great Canadian Railtour Company made 43 donations worth $197,170 to the governing Liberals between 2005 and 2009.

Most recently, Great Canadian gave finance minister Kevin Falcon $10,000 for his leadership campaign and $2,000 to George Abbott's bid.

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