Business owner who lost N.B. Liquor agency contract makes his case

Business owner who lost N.B. Liquor agency contract makes his case

A judge has reserved his decision in a legal challenge by a Hartland business owner over what he calls a case of political influence over a lucrative N.B. Liquor contract.

Peter Cook alleges he lost a bid to renew his agency store contract in 2021 for political reasons — because he’s a Liberal and because a friend and supporter of Premier Blaine Higgs chairs the Crown corporation’s board.

Cook’s lawyer, Erica Brown, finally laid out his case in Court of King’s Bench Wednesday morning, almost three years after he lost the contract.

But N.B. Liquor’s lawyer, Clarence Bennett, responded that the claims were “little more than innuendo,” telling Justice Terrence Morrison that Cook and Brown were “on a treasure hunt without a treasure map.”

Brick buildings on either side of a street frame a bridge in the distance.
Town leaders and business executives in Hartland complained that the decision to award the N.B. Liquor contract to Valu Foods grocery store, about one kilometre away near the edge of the town, would hurt the effort to keep the downtown alive. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Cook bought the Courtyard Convenience Store in Hartland in 2019, taking over its liquor agency store, and later spent $800,000 renovating, at N.B. Liquor’s suggestion, his adjacent Fresh Mart grocery store to accommodate the agency products. 

He did that with a “legitimate expectation” that the contract would be rolled over again when it expired in 2021, as it had been since the convenience store won it in 1996, Brown argued.

Instead, N.B. Liquor issued a new request for proposals in 2021 and awarded it to the Valu Foods grocery store, about one kilometre away near the edge of the town.

WATCH | ‘We did what they asked.’ Hartland businessman says on losing liquor contract:

Hartland agency liquor store case heads back to court

Peter Cook alleges that N.B. Liquor manipulated selection criteria to award agency store contract to a competitor.

Town leaders and business executives in Hartland complained that the decision would hurt the effort to keep the downtown alive. 

Bennett told Justice Terrence Morrison Wednesday that Cook had “a sense of entitlement” that the contract would be automatically renewed — but ought to have known that wasn’t a sure thing. 

Cook did not take the request for proposals process seriously, said Bennett, with the attitude “I’m going to get it anyway.” 

“Then he’s shocked when a bid that’s not very good is unsuccessful.”

Andrew Kinley, lawyer for Valu Foods, agreed that Cook was, in effect, seeking to hold onto the agency contract “in perpetuity,” something he couldn’t do. 

An Irving gas station and convenience store with cars sitting at the pumps.
The owner of Valu Foods, Richard Orser, did not respond to an interview request from CBC News Tuesday. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Cook argues that his bid was superior.

In his first year with the agency store, he said sales jumped $449,000 — an increase of 27 per cent.

But, he said, N.B. Liquor’s scoring system for the bids was skewed against him.

A traffic count used by N.B. Liquor didn’t measure vehicles coming toward the store from the town’s iconic covered bridge across the street, from a street leading from residential neighbourhoods behind the store and from Main Street, downriver.

“This wasn’t a true reflection of traffic flow,” Brown said. “The placement of the counter at the Fresh Mart was arbitrary and missed a lot of vehicles.”

Cook hired an engineering firm to get his own numbers using counters in all directions. It showed traffic volumes near his store double that near the Valu Foods store.

That would have changed the points calculation in Cook’s favour, Brown said.

A woman with long brown hair wearing a suit walks outside a courthouse.
Peter Cook’s lawyer Erica Brown laid out her client’s case in court on Wednesday. Cook also claims that among other errors, the N.B. Liquor assessment understated his visibility in the heart of Hartland, across from a major tourist destination, and overstated his competitor’s. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Cook also claims the N.B. Liquor assessment understated his visibility in the heart of Hartland, across from a major tourist destination, and overstated his competitor’s.

Brown told the judge Wednesday that the scoring didn’t award him points for a sign he committed to install protruding from the building.

“It was ignored,” she said.

Cook believes the decision was made because he is a known Liberal supporter, because N.B. Liquor chair John Correia is a prominent Progressive Conservative close to Premier Blaine Higgs, and because the corporation favours stores attached to Irving gas stations.

But Bennett said there was no evidence to back up what he called “salacious allegations” and “conspiracy theories.” 

He argued Cook lost points in the bidding process for legitimate reasons: Cook charged a higher commission than the Valu Foods store planned to and he had shorter opening hours.

“It’s their burden,” he said of Cook and Brown, “to show the unfairness and provide the evidence that the decision is unreasonable.” He argued they had not.

The owner of Valu Foods, Richard Orser, did not respond to an interview request from CBC News Tuesday.