22 June 2006

Byrne resigns; serious questions appear

Premier Danny Williams announced Wednesday evening that he has requested and received the resignation of Ed Byrne [Left. Photo: CBC] as minister of natural resources, effective immediately.

The action came as a result of an audit of the House of Assembly conducted by the Auditor General of Newfoundland and Labrador.

There is no indication that Byrne has also resigned as government leader in the House of Assembly.

The poorly written release can be found here, at gov.nl.ca.

"I am not prepared to comment further on this matter, as I have referred it to the Department of Justice on the advice of the Auditor General," said Premier Williams. "I immediately requested Mr. Byrne‚’s resignation until the matter is resolved, as I take our government‚’s obligation to be accountable and transparent very seriously."

The Premier did comment further, in a media scrum that was broadcast live across the province at 6:15 pm. Williams told reporters the auditor general submitted a report persuant to section 15(1) of the Auditor General Act. That sections reads:
15. (1) Where during the course of an audit, the auditor general becomes aware of an improper retention or misappropriation of public money or another activity that may constitute an offence under the Criminal Code or another Act, the auditor general shall immediately report the improper retention or misappropriation of public money or other activity to the Lieutenant-Governor in Council. [Emphasis added]
Williams also told reporters that the auditor general reported on several other members of the House of Assembly. He said the auditor general's report has been turned over to the Department of Justice. Presumably, the report is now in the hands of the attorney general and may be turned over or has already been handed to the police for further investigation.

[UPDATE: According to a debrief on CBC radio, Byrne's resignation comes as the result of the first complete audit. Other members of the House of Assembly may be subject to further investigation. Logically, therefore, there may be no further investigation other than the review of Byrne's actions.

The CBC report this morning is significantly different than the implication from the Premier's comments on Wednesday that other members of the House of Assembly were - definite, not conditional - also under investigation. By definition an audit of the House of Assembly covers all members and hence involves all parties. However, if only this one problem has occured, then Williams has case the net of supicion wider than indicated by the facts at this point.

This would not be the first time the Premier made a statement which was untrue or used words and phrases with ambiguous meaning that appear designed to mislead.]

Byrne's departure from cabinet and the important natural resources portfolio removes one of the Williams administration's more competent ministers at a sensitive time. Work is underway on the province's energy plan, which is supposed to include a royalty regime for offshore natural gas.

Williams announced that Byrne will be replaced by John Ottenheimer, minister of intergovernmental affairs. Ottenheimer was moved from the high-pressure health portfolio to the less demanding intergovernmental affairs slot. It is unclear if Ottenheimer will be expected to tackle the full workload in natural resources or if Williams himself will serve as de facto minister.

During the media scrum Williams indicated he met with the Speaker of the House of Assembly and discussed the issue. Williams said he requested Byrne's resignation at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning.

There is no explanation why Williams chose to announce Bryne's departure live on province-wide television during the supper hour news programs of both major television stations, despite the fact that Byrne had apparently resigned over six hours earlier.

[UPDATE: The CBC debrief on Thursday refered to the Premier taking decisive action. This comment and references to other resignations resulting from investigations by auditor general John Noseworthy fit the Premier's Office contention from the news release and from the Premier's scrum that the Premier takes "our government‚’s obligation to be accountable and transparent very seriously".

It is interesting to note that in the Tulk case in 1998, Brian Tobin presented himself as taking decisive action. However, it was apparent from his own statements in the House of Assembly that an active police investigation had been underway in the Tulk matter for fully two weeks before Tobin and Tulk acted.

At this point, and given the dirth of accurate and detailed information, the best that can be said is that Byrne has resigned. It would be entirely inapproriate to attach any intepretation to the Premier's comments and actions beyond the facts presented. Taking this as part of a pattern involving other matters or repeating the Premier's accountability and transparency comments in an unqualified manner would constitute an unsubstantiated intepretation that fits the convenient political intepretation being applied by the Premier's Office, but not necessarily the facts as known at this point.]

Williams had been avoiding media interviews earlier in the day following his derogatory comments about the association representing the province's offshore supply and service companies. Williams did find time in his schedule to call Back Talk, a local radio call-in show, to defend himself against accusations that he had criticized NOIA before actually hearing what the association said at its news conference at midday Wednesday.

Williams called Back Talk at around 3:45 PM and spoke with program host Bill Rowe for about 10 minutes. He repeated his criticism of NOIA and also hinted - bizarrely and cryptically - that the offshore association was interfering in ongoing negotiations between government and the consortium that had been proposing development of the Hebron field.

There are no negotiations, a fact acknowledged on Tuesday by Ed Byrne. Speaking at NOIA's annual offshore petroleum conference, Byrne said the door was open to a resumption of talks been government and the Hebron proponents.

Williams made the rounds at NOIA's conference gala Tuesday night buttonholing delegates and making clear his displeasure at NOIA's recent calls for government and the oil companies to resume talks on the Hebron project. He also reportedly expressed the view that NOIA had no business commenting on Williams' refusal to follow the Atlantic Accord Implementation Act and appoint a chairman and chief executive officer at the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

In the scrum, Williams compared Byrne's resignation to that of Beaton Tulk, a cabinet minister udner Brian Tobin. Members of Tulk's immediate family and some of his office staff had been accused of accepting favours that, if proven, would have been a breach of section 121 of the Criminal Code. No charges were laid following a police investigation.

In the Tulk case, a police investigation had actually been underway for two weeks before Tulk resigned. Tobin requested Tulk's resignation only after Tulk's office received a media inquiry about the matter.