17 August 2011

A cause for grave concern #nlpoli

The Office of the Auditor General is an independent and reliable source of the objective, fact-based information that the House of Assembly needs to fulfill one of its most important roles: holding the provincial government accountable for its stewardship of public funds.

That’s a paraphrase of the description of the auditor general’s job found on the federal auditor general’s website.

Let’s add a bit of a twist to that description, though. The Auditor General’s office is not just an officer for the legislature alone; the AG office is one of the officers the public must trust to ensure that government spends your tax dollars and mine properly.

Aside from anything else, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador must have confidence that the person who serves as Auditor General is not a partisan for any political party and is functioning free of any favour or threat from the government itself.

John Noseworthy likely shattered that confidence for a good few people in the province on Tuesday when he became the second Auditor General in a row to leave office and enter politics.

In this case, Noseworthy announced his new political career a mere 16 days after leaving the job that he wants to run as a candidate for the ruling provincial Conservatives in the fall general election.

But that’s not the whole story.

Noseworthy had a year or more left  in his term when he announced last June that he was quitting to pursue “other professional opportunities.”  Asked about political ambitions at the time, Noseworthy merely told reporters he was ruling nothing out.

News reports on Tuesday mentioned his role in uncovering the House of Assembly spending scandal.  In interviews, Noseworthy was quick to call his own reports on government spending “scathing” and noted that he was critical of government.

That’s as maybe. The timing alone creates the impression of an unseemly haste to leave his job early in order to enter politics.   His comments appear self-serving and - in light of some of his actions over the past seven or eight years - dubious.

Noseworthy has been a bit of a media darling since 2006 and the spending scandal.  What that means is that local reporters have not questioned him even when there was good reason to doubt his comments, claims and conclusions.

For starters, Noseworthy has never accounted for millions of dollars of overspending that took place during the scandal period from 1996 to 2006.  Instead, he looked at other issues.

Nor has he explained why his own reports actually ignored the overspending. You’ll only find reference to the actual degree of overspending here at SRBP and in Chief Justice Derek Green’s report on the spending scandal.

In the parts he did report on, your humble e-scribbler raised questions about his public comments at the time and how he was conducting his reviews.  Chief Justice Green even recommended significant changes to sections of the law governing the Auditor General as a result of the inappropriate - and in some instances unfounded – accusations Noseworthy levelled at members of the legislature.

Then there’s the question of how both he and his old boss, now Tory Senator Elizabeth Marshall never made any comment on the level of overspending in the House of assembly accounts until 2006.  They may not have had access to the House books for a part of the scandal period but they did have access to the Comptroller General’s records for the whole time and he wrote all the cheques used to shell out the cash. And they never raised the issue once, except for the one time when Marshall’s attempt to investigate a single cabinet minister – Liberal as it turns out – got shut down.

Noseworthy’s also been known to polish his own knob and that of his future political associates.  In a 2009 report, Noseworthy actually made up a fictitious report recommendation and credited the government with following it.

A 2007 report claimed that the same agency produced a deficit and a surplus at the same time.

Nothing was quite as bizarre, though, as Noseworthy’s sudden decision to try and audit the offshore regulatory board.  At the time, Noseworthy’s office did not include the board in a list of government agencies the Ag felt he had the authority to audit. 

Noseworthy made quite the stink about getting inside the board offices, issuing a special report.

But once he got in, the whole thing vanished.

No subsequent reports.

No updates.

No letters.

Nothing.

Not until your humble e-scribbler brought up the question of the vanished Earth-shattering issue and reporters trotted off to Noseworthy’s office to see what gives.

Access problems, Noseworthy harrumphed.

But no word on his silence on the whole matter for the better part of two and a half years.

There was just a little cock-up in a story on the whole thing by one local radio station.

Funny thing in that little episode as it turns out. Natural resources minister Shawn Skinner wound up reminding everyone of the sweeping changes to provincial laws that wound up effectively shielding so much of Nalcor’s operations from public oversight.

Noseworthy didn’t say boo about any of that as it sailed through the legislature and it didn’t make any reference to it in any of his comments since June when he announced his retirement.

Maybe Noseworthy will be like his predecessor Beth Marshall who, after entering politics, didn’t find any problems with giving politicians access to bags of cash they could hand out to constituents, often without receipts.

Ah yes, old-fashioned patronage politics and the importance of having a member on the government side to dole out the goodies.

And, by gosh, didn’t John Noseworthy mention just that - having someone on the government side  - as he launched his career in politics.

Incompetence?

Normal practices?

Bias?

Whatever the cause, John Noseworthy’s announcement on Tuesday is the finest example yet of why our province desperately needs a fundamental, democratic revolution.

- srbp -

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