20 July 2006

A mulligan or a snipe hunt?

Some two weeks after telling the people of Newfoundland and Labrador that he had finished his audit work at the House of Assembly, Auditor General John Noseworthy apparently asked for and received direction from cabinet to go back to the House of Assembly and conduct further audit work.

This is just the latest turn in a sordid tale of inappropriate spending, alleged criminal activity and alleged overpayments to members of the provincial legislature that has already seen numerous contradictory comments from the Auditor General and members of the House on the scope of the scandal and on measures that have supposedly been taken to prevent further impropriety.

That is, it is a further twist if the latest news release from Speaker Harvey Hodder is to be taken at face value.

The only thing that can be said with certainty about this latest news release is the the extent of public outrage at the scandal, dissatisfaction with efforts by politicians to contain the fall-out and growing support for a public inquiry prompted someone in Confederation Building and the House of Assembly to order up some further action.

But that's where the story becomes murky.

According to the news release, AG Noseworthy will be conducting "comprehensive annual audits of accounts of the House of Assembly for fiscal years 1999/2000 to 2003/04." [Note: in common government usage this would be FY 1999 to FY 2003.]

Noseworthy's one page "report" on alleged payments to former cabinet minister Ed Byrne covered FY 2002 and FY 2003, although Noseworthy mis-indentified the years involved. At the time he released the report on Byrne, AG Noseworthy indicated he had some unspecified indications of additional overpayments to Byrne for two previous fiscal years. That would take the review already conducted back to FY 2000, at least for Byrne.

When he met with news media in June to discuss the Byrne report, Noseworthy said:
"What we're seeing here is an end of an era and I don't think this sort of era will come again," Noseworthy said.

"This is over, I think."
He also stated unequivocally that changes made to the House administration by the new Internal Economy Commission (IEC) would prevent further misspending past April 2004.

That was before he released four further reports.

Reports on Randy Collins, Wally Andersen and former legislator Jim Walsh covered the periods FY 2002 to FY 2005, although once again AG Noseworthy misidentified the years involved. Another report, on payments made to four companies, covered the period from FY 1998 to FY 2005. Again, Noseworthy's reports mis-identify the years.

The total amount of dubious spending from FY 1998 to FY 2005 was almost $4.0 million.

All this is to point out not merely the inconsistencies in Noseworthy's comments but the discrepancies among the periods already auditted and the extent of the audits already conducted.

Presumably, if Noseworthy had focused on four current and former members of the House and then announced his work was done, he had looked at all the accounts and pronounced clean all but the problems he announced.

But if those inconsistencies were not enough to give pause, Speaker Harvey Hodder told The Telegram, the province's largest daily newspaper, that in fact he had received no reports from the Auditor General despite the news conferences and the release of reports that included letters of transmittal addressed to Hodder.

And so we are told on Wednesday that AG Noseworthy" has asked for and received cabinet direction" to do work that covers, in largest part, work he supposedly had already done.

It is possible that Nosworthy is being given a mulligan, a do-over. That would mean the first audits and reports were incomplete and so Noseworthy is being given the chance to go back and get it right. That would also have an impact on the police investiagtions resulting fcrom his first reports although whether his mulligan would forestall or widen the police investigation is unclear.

It is also possible Noseworthy is being sent on a snipe hunt, or its Newfoundland equivalent the search for The Wild Baloney. [Left: erstwhile snipe hunter displays proper posture]

Noseworthy will look at how money was spent but, since he already eliminated all but four for overspending, he will find little else. After all, as long as members of the House of Assembly did not overspend their accounts, a great many dubious expenditures seem to have been approved by the Internal Economy Commission after the legislature's administrative rules were changed in June 1996.

Noseworthy has mentioned his suspicion that one former member purchased wine and art from his constituency allowance. Criticism of this alleged spending is based on the rules for this allowances which Noseworthy has quoted as being:
the payment of expenditures incurred in the performance of constituency business and may cover such items as office rental, equipment, supplies, secretarial and other support services, information material such as newspapers, advertising, purchase of flags, pins, etc..
However, what is the difference between those alleged purchases and the admission by the current Speaker, two current cabinet ministers and one former minister that they had spent their district budgets on everything from personal advertising, outfitting sports teams with new shirts, gifts to seniors homes, supporting volunteer firefighters to making donations to the Royal Canadian Legion?

Since all those expenditures fell within the spending approved by the IEC, Noseworthy will have difficulty reporting negatively on them unless the members involved overspent their accounts. After all, since Noseworthy is aware or ought to have been aware of these expenditures in the course of his recent audits, he already ha dplenty of opportunity to comment on them.

The likelihood Noseworthy is on a snipe hunt is reinforced by the charge he has been apparently given to review constituency allowances from 1989 to 2004. Firstly, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest ther were any impriorieties with their accounts before the IEc changed the rules on this spending in June 1996.

Estimates 1994, for example, shows clearly that these allowances were underspent in 1993 by a significant amount. This was in a year when Noseworthy's predecessor had full access to the House accounts. By contrast, forthe years Noseworthy has already covered, the annual estimates show at least two years of significant budget overruns. In another year, the estimates show the accounts as being exactly - miraculously on budget, even though Noseworthy's reports allege that at two members received signifcant amounts more than they were entitled to in the same fiscal year. These were years when the Auditor General was not allowed access to the House accounts.

Secondly, this looks like a snipe hunt since Noseworthy is going over old ground and can't look any more recently than March 2003. Even though his previous work showed significant mis-spending continued until as recently as December 2005, the Auditor General's latest audit will simply stop dead almost two full years short of when evidence already suggests accounts were being fiddled.

Thirdly, Noseworthy's task looks like a snipe hunt since he is specifically being sent back to the past to "determine whether overspending occured at the constituency allowance level beyond which [sic] was approved, authorized or provided through the Internal Economy Commission policies."

He isn't looking for inappropriate spending. Noseworthy is just looking for people who got too much money. If a members were allowed by the IEc to buy art or pay their mortgages with constituency money, there won't be much Noseworthy can say about it since that is beyond his limited mandate. Noseworthy can judge whether or not the rules were followed but he can't tell us if he thinks the rules were wrong in the first place.

There is an outside chance that Noseworthy is actually being sent to do solid work. His "comprehensive" audits might actually include a full review of IEC policies. His work this time might actually call to account the various memebrs of the IEC including the two current senior cabinet ministers who sat on the IEC in 2000 and afterward when it apparently made some of the most significant decisions related to the current scandal.

Don't count it though. The members of the legislature, the Speaker and the cabinet have worked diligently to prevent a public inquiry which is the only way to get to the bottom of the entire House of Assembly mess. There is a police investigation to be sure, but the police will not look at the House administrative practices. There is a judge looking at allowances but he has been specifically told not to look at what occured in the past and can offer no opinion on whether or not what happened before June 2006 was right or wrong: it's beyond his very carefully limited brief.

Those in authority have also structured this latest mission of the Auditor General to look at only a portion of the issue, leaving out the bits that will likely involve many of the people in positions of responsibility having to account for their actions. They have sent him to look like he is looking for something.

Public pressure does seems to be having an effect, though. Perhaps the embarrassment of having this scandal dominate the news while provincial premiers are in St. John's next week will prompt a complete inquiry.

Wonder what would happen if premier after premier was asked if he and his fellow legislators could make gifts out of their office budget to ringette teams just like Danny Williams and his colleagues can do?

We might just get a public inquiry after all.