29 June 2006

The case for Mr. Hodder's resignation

Speaker Harvey Hodder claims he was shocked by revelations of the Auditor General.

At this point, the only people who should be genuinely shocked are the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

They should be shocked by information about the House of Assembly - for which Mr. Hodder is responsible - and about Mr. Hodder's own apparent actions and those of the Internal Economy Commission (IEC) which he chairs.

By Mr. Hodder's admission he had some misgivings about the financial operations of the Assembly when he took the Speaker's Chair in 2004. Apparently, there was sufficient awareness that Bill Murray, the former financial operations director was in a conflict of interest in that his own private company had been doing business with the Assembly.

The Auditor General noted in his most recent report:
Furthermore, the Clerk of the House of Assembly indicated that, after writing all staff including the former Director in February 2004 advising that they had a responsibility to disclose any conflict of interest activity, he received written notification from the former Director that business activity between Unique Keepsakes and the House of Assembly would cease. However, I found that the former Director appeared to circumvent this commitment by having Unique Keepsakes' transactions go from direct payments recorded in Government's financial management system (FMS), to transactions directly with the various Members of the House of Assembly which were then claimed through their constituency allowance and therefore undetectable through FMS.
This last statement - "and therefore undetectable through FMS" - refers to the provincial government's financial management system. This is the computer-based administration system which is intended to verify claims are legitimate and appropriate and then to generate payment. In order for any other payment to be generated for any government department, completed claims, for example, with original supporting documents must be sent to the Comptroller General. It is the responsibility of the Comptroller General to assess the claim and provide the final sign-off. Without original documentation, indeed without information apparently beyond the name of the payee and the amount to be disbursed, there would be precious little the Comptroller General could do to verify the authenticity of payment demands.

For the outset, the key decision that apparently facilitated the entire fiasco has gone unnoticed. At some point around 2000, the IEC allowed the House financial officer to hold the complete control of financial transactions and determined that he did not have to supply documents to the Comptroller General. At no point after 2000, and apparently not until the past few weeks, successive Speakers of the House of Assembly and the IEC did not alter that requirement.

It is the simplest of simple checks. It is the most obvious of the simple checks that would likely have made the entire spending fiasco from occurring in the first place. Yet it was not done. So much for Mr. Hodder's misgivings.

With that in mind, the accusation that Mr. Hodder recently visited the former financial director in hospital should raise further alarms. His likely excuse - that it occured because of a sincere human concern for Mr. Murray's welfare - does not pass the sniff test of credibility. He may well be concerned about Mr. Murray's health; who wouldn't be. In the context of the alleged misappropriations, there simply is no reason why Mr. Hodder ought to be visiting the individual identified as being at the heart of the alleged misappropriations and misspending.

If the full accusation is true - that is, if Mr. Hodder spoke with Mr. Murray about events in the House and either attempted to or was perceived as having tried to elicit a confession from Mr. Murray - then we have cause to be suspicious of Mr. Hodder's actions and his motives. Mr. Hodder may well be innocent of anything at all. He may well be innocent of anything but being asleep at the switch, but his actions in visiting the hospital are grossly inappropriate.

Even if all this were not true, there are other questions about Mr. Hodder's behaviour in recent days. Mr. Hodder held responsibility to receive the Auditor General's report. Together with the IEC, he had the authority and the responsibility to take the actions of calling in the police, instituting any other inquires, and, of course, advising the public fully of what was taking place.

He has done nothing of the sort. Instead, Mr. Hodder has surrendered the legislature to cabinet and his own office to the first minister.

All he has done in this whole fiasco is appear with several news media a week after the story broke and express his shock and amazement at events. Mr. Hodder has taken no responsibility to clean up the mess and instead points his elbows toward the external auditors for failing to find anything wrong in the first place.

All this points to two straightforward things which must occur.

First, Mr. Hodder must step aside, even if only until the investigations are complete.

Second, and most important, the cabinet must appoint a public inquiry without further delay. This is the only way the public can be assured that all relevant information will be disclosed, those responsible identified and held accountable and the innocent exonerated.

At this juncture, nothing less will do.