04 July 2006

The process isn't fine, Mr. Noseworthy

Auditor General John Noseworthy said on Tuesday that the process he followed in auditing the House of Assembly was fine and didn't need any changes.

Here are just a few of the problems with the supposedly fine process:

1. An interpretation of what constitutes working papers of the Auditor General that prevents those being investigated from seeing the very documents they are being asked to explain. It's a basic principle of justice that an accused individual can confront the individuals and evidence being used against him. Self-serving interpretations don't make for a bullet-proof audit. The fact that this can even be raised as an issue potentially compromises any subsequent investigation.

2. Reports that provide incomplete or inaccurate information. Forget the quirky way of reporting the fiscal year. AG Noseworthy's reports do not provide sufficient information on the process followed or the information collected to support conclusions of anything beyond overspending. Part of the confusion dogging anyone trying to pick sense of the whole mess - The Independent included - is that no one has provided a simple explanation of what was supposed to happen and what actually happened. The AG hasn't told us what led to the audit in the first place, how far back in time he and his team went. heck we don't even know if he was asked to look at specific issues by the Internal Economy Commission or just conducted a routine audit and uncovered problems.

Take away the mandatory blather in the Ag reports and you wind up with four reports on members of the House of Assembly that in total wouldn't cover a single 8.5 X 11 sheet. There is a great deal of background detail missing from the reports. For example, one of the nice things to know would be how much each member was entitled to claim - in total - and what the discrepancy was between that number and the amounts actually paid. Part of the problem with the Indy's reporting this past weekend was confusion about the most basic of information - stuff the AG should have already explained to everyone in plain English.

As for AG Noseworthy's claim he has evidence of misspending dating back to 1989, we are all waiting to see any evidence to back that one.

3. Pull the other one. According to the Auditor General, Wally Anderson and Randy Collins made no claims for travel for three of the four years he reviewed. When they did submit claims it was for a tiny fraction of travel spending by St. John's-area MHA Ed Byrne.

If AG Noseworthy, is right then there are much bigger problems at the House of Assembly than mere misappropriation of funds by some members.

Something tells me the AG's work is incomplete; however since he didn't described for us the work he did complete in reaching his conclusions, we just don't know. Taken together with all the other issues in this audit, AG Noseworthy's word just isn't good enough.

4. "Do I look like Gil Grissom?" After standing on his hind legs and insisting that having claim forms with a signature was evidence that the individual under review actually signed the forms, AG Noseworthy admitted on Tuesday that police investigation will have to determine if documents he attributed to four members of the House were forged.

If the AG process was adequate, he would have already ruled out forgery as a possibility before alerting police to a problem. AG Noseworthy would have described the process of submitting claims, who had opportunity to forge claims and how he eliminated the possibility of fraud before accusing anyone of criminal activity.

As it stands, we now have claims made by the Auditor General that don't even meet the sniff test of thoroughness.

5. I can't tell you if the items were even delivered.
Does that mean you looked and couldn't find them or never looked in the first place? Given that rings and other items mentioned in the $2.8 million questionable spending report started turning up less than an hour after the report was made public, it sure looks like the audit team didn't do their job very well.

6. All is well... sort of. When the story broke three weeks ago, AG Noseworthy was everywhere insisting that changes made at the House of Assembly in 2004 "fixed" the problems. The Byrne report appeared to confirm that since the alleged overspending stopped at the end of Fiscal Year 2003.

Two weeks later, AG Noseworthy details alleged overspending that carried on two years after the changes.

Those changes included not only hiring two more financial staff in the House of Assembly but, apparently, requiring that claims had to be submitted to the Comptroller General with all supporting documents in order for payment to be made.

$200,000 later, it turns out the controls were less than adequate and that all that was well two weeks ago is apparently not so well after all.

7. Maybe I should end this here. Perhaps the finest proof that AG Noseworthy's approach to this matter was inadequate is the unseemly haste with which he ended Tuesday's news conference once reporters started asking tough questions.

Much of what they sought was the same information Noseworthy had volunteered freely two weeks ago. However, at some point over the weekend, someone advised Noseworthy to do the smart thing and restrict his comments to the facts he was making public.

As it is, his free-wheeling accusations have tarnished reputations of all current and former members of the House of Assembly, possibly opened up legal defenses for those he accused and generally created an environment in which factual information is in short supply and rumour and innuendo are running rampant.

If this is a perfectly fine process, we should all hate to see one that was shagged up.