Allegations of low-tech espionage involving Metro Vancouver, an international construction company and Coquitlam’s mayor and city manager are at the crux of a recent notice of application filed in B.C. Supreme Court.
None of the charges have been proven in court.
Metro Vancouver, the board responsible for sewer and drainage throughout the region, filed the claim against Acciona – a multinational conglomerate previously tasked with building the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant. The story was originally reported by CBC.
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Nearly five years after giving Acciona the go-ahead to build the plant, Metro Vancouver terminated the deal in January 2022.
Acciona filed a notice of civil claim and accused Metro Vancouver of wrongful termination in March.
In May, Acciona revealed – through legal counsel – the company had a confidential Metro Vancouver document.
Besides legal advice, the 38-page document sought approval from Metro Vancouver’s board of directors to terminate the deal with Acciona. The report contained “highly sensitive and confidential information” related to the wastewater treatment plant project, according to the notice of application.
Three days in January
Metro Vancouver’s directors got together for a closed meeting on Jan. 18, 2022. Topics of discussion included terminating the deal with Acciona and possibly undertaking litigation.
A confidential report advised Metro Vancouver’s directors: “it is highly likely that Metro Vancouver will be headed to litigation as it relates to this project. Confidentiality continues to be of the utmost importance.”
On Jan. 20, Metro Vancouver terminated the wastewater treatment plant deal with Acciona. The company already had portions of Metro Vancouver’s report, according to an affidavit included in the notice.
According to the notice, Acciona learned of the breach of confidential Metro Vancouver documents on Jan. 19 or 20.
The source of the documents
Anika Calder, who worked for Acciona, took cellphone pictures of the documents and sent the photos, directly or indirectly, to at least four people, according to the notice. Acciona refused to identify those four people, “other than by pseudonyms,” according to Metro Vancouver’s notice of application.
An email from McEwan Partners stated that Calder shared the photos with one person at Acciona.
The source’s source
Calder’s father is Peter Steblin, Coquitlam’s city manager.
“Steblin had obtained access to the confidential closed meeting report using Director [and Coquitlam Mayor Richard] Stewart’s Metro ID and password,” according to an affidavit provided by Metro Vancouver commissioner Jerry W. Dobrovolny.
Under no circumstances was Steblin permitted to give the report to anyone, “let alone his daughter as an employee of Acciona,” according to the affidavit.
The affidavit lists four times Stewart’s account was accessed on the afternoons of Jan. 18 and 19. According to Dobrovolny’s affidavit, Metro Vancouver’s director of information technology concluded that it was during those four log-in times that the confidential documents were obtained.
It was through Steblin’s role that Calder: “had access to privileged and confidential materials from multiple closed meetings,” according to Metro Vancouver’s notice.
After the breach
Between May and September, Acciona and Metro Vancouver – through their respective legal representatives – exchanged emails about the breach. Those emails concerned the possibility of bringing in a forensic expert as well as interviewing key figures involved in the breach.
Around September, Acciona advised Metro Vancouver that the construction company wouldn’t provide notes from its interview with Calder, would not jointly engage an expert, nor “provide any further information of the breach whatsoever” to Metro Vancouver, according to the notice.
An email from McEwan Partners, the law firm representing Acciona, requested information from Metro Vancouver regarding an interview with Steblin.
“. . . despite the passage of almost four weeks, we have yet to receive any information from Metro-Van to (1) confirm that Mr. Steblin’s interview took place and (2) provide information obtained at the interview,” stated an email from lawyer Craig. P Dennis.
Dennis added that, without receiving new information from Steblin’s interview that could raise relevant facts, “our client considers the internal investigation to be closed.”
A response from Norton Rose Fulbright – the law firm representing Metro Vancouver – explained that Metro Vancouver’s information was provided indirectly by Stewart.
“Steblin advised he left his laptop open, left the room and Ms. Calder took photographs of the material on his laptop while he was not in the room; and Mr. Steblin advised he did not know Ms. Calder took the photographs,” responded Norton Rose Fulbright.
Both the time it took to receive the information, “and the limited nature of the information provided,” came as a surprise to Acciona, replied Dennis.
“We understand that Mr. Steblin continues to work for the City of Coquitlam, which we expect will be a consideration when discussing the scope of future collaboration,” Dennis wrote.
Extent of the breach
There is a “compelling inference” that the confidential information is not limited to the closed meeting report, according to the notice.
The extent of the breach is “potentially wide” given the access Calder had to materials distributed during multiple closed meetings leading up to the decision to kibosh the deal with Acciona.
As a director on Metro Vancouver’s board, Stewart could access Metro Vancouver agendas, reports and memos by accessing the regional government’s board network with his user ID and password.
Having sat on the board from the fall of 2018 to the fall of 2022, Stewart was able to attend 13 meetings in which the wastewater treatment plant was discussed.
Metro Vancouver is seeking an injunctive relief to ensure the information is contained and “ultimately destroyed.”