Outgoing FFAW president denies conflict of interest over wife's work with Nalcor

Fish, Food & Allied Workers president Keith Sullivan is stepping down, citing personal reasons after eight years at the helm. He says it has nothing to do with allegations his wife was in a conflict of interest while negotiating on behalf of Nalcor Energy. (Garrett Barry/CBC - image credit)
Fish, Food & Allied Workers president Keith Sullivan is stepping down, citing personal reasons after eight years at the helm. He says it has nothing to do with allegations his wife was in a conflict of interest while negotiating on behalf of Nalcor Energy. (Garrett Barry/CBC - image credit)

Keith Sullivan says his departure from the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union has nothing to do with allegations his wife was in a conflict of interest over a controversial agreement with scallop harvesters 10 years ago.

Ryan Cleary — the most vocal critic of Sullivan throughout his tenure as FFAW-Unifor boss — posted an article on his blog Thursday evening that raised the allegations publicly for the first time.

Cleary obtained documents through access-to-information requests that show Roseann Williams — who is married to Sullivan — was part of a four-person negotiating team that worked opposite the FFAW in 2012 and 2013, while Sullivan was an assistant to the union's president.

The two sides negotiated a deal to compensate fish harvesters on the Northern Peninsula over the loss of valuable scallop fishing grounds to a subsea power cable laid by Nalcor Energy.

That agreement would later prove controversial, when fish harvesters in the region took their union to court over its handling of the negotiations.

"I was not president at the time and had no role whatsoever in the discussions around compensation for scallop," Sullivan said in a statement to CBC News on Friday morning. "This is just more of the foolishness everybody has come to expect from Ryan Cleary."

Curtis Hicks/CBC
Curtis Hicks/CBC

CBC News has reviewed the documents Cleary obtained, and the agreements that resulted from the negotiations. While the documents do show Williams was present on the Nalcor team, they do not show who was part of the FFAW team. CBC News has not seen evidence Sullivan was present for negotiations.

Even so, Cleary says, the situation should have been flagged as a conflict of interest given one of the negotiators had such close ties to the union.

Cleary said a Nalcor executive brought the issue to his attention in August, asking him if he was aware Sullivan's wife worked for their negotiating team.

"In terms of conflict, perception is reality," Cleary said. "And it's certainly perceived as a conflict, even within the corridors of Nalcor."

Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro — which absorbed Nalcor in 2021 — said it was aware of the relationship between Williams and Sullivan at the time of negotiations.

"Mr. Sullivan was not president of the FFAW at that time and Ms. Williams did not have any financial authority. Further, the full team complement representing [the Lower Churchill project] was thoroughly vetted."

Judge chastised union over negotiations

The negotiations ended with Nalcor agreeing to pay $2.6 million to compensate the fish harvesters for lost fishing grounds in Area 14A. The fish harvesters took issue with the structure for the payments, which were to be handed out in annual instalments for 30 years, instead of in a lump sum.

They were especially dismayed to discover the negotiations were nearly complete by the time the FFAW asked their consent to negotiate on their behalf.

A Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador justice later ruled the union had failed in its responsibilities to the fishermen. He ordered the FFAW to pay out the money to the fish harvesters in a lump sum.

"The court case was unprecedented in itself," Cleary said. "When you add that with this perception of a conflict, together it's information that deserves to be put out there for public consumption."

Complicated history

Cleary has been a thorn in Sullivan's side since 2016, when he launched a breakaway association called the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador — or FISH-NL.

While their efforts to be certified as a union fell short, Cleary returned to an opposition role with a new group called SEA-NL, for Seaward Enterprises Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, in 2021.

Cleary — a former journalist and politician — has long taken issue with the FFAW representing both the harvesters and plant workers in the province.

Sullivan announced Thursday he is stepping down after eight years at the helm of the union, citing personal reasons. Cleary said he'd intended to publish his findings Thursday before he knew Sullivan was stepping down. Sullivan denied it was because of the story.

"Take care, good luck," Cleary said when asked if he had any message for Sullivan as he departs. "I don't look at it as personal."

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