05 August 2006

Provincial legislators lease office space from themselves

The Telegram is reporting today a story originally covered by The Independent, that some members of the House of Assembly operate offices in their constituency from buildings they own.

The Telly version is considerably better detailed.

Ed Joyce (Lib. - Bay of Islands) and Kelvin Parsons (Lib. - Burgeo-La Poile) own the rental properties in which their offices. According to the Telegram story, both charge $350 per month to their House of Assembly accounts as rent on the office space.

When contacted by the Telegram, both MHAs noted that the price they charge government is less than they were charging previous tenents. Both were also quick to point out that they were within the rules established by the Assembly's Internal Economy Commission. Both also claimed to have written permission from Clerk of the House to rent their own property to themselves and bill the cost to the House.

With all due respect the savings - if any - are irrelevent. Both members of the legislature are personally benefitting from public money. The decision on which space to lease was made solely by the legislators themselves.

It's about as clear-cut a case of conflict of interest as one can get.

As for the rest of their excuses, both Joyce and Parsons point to the need for a public inquiry into the entire House of Assembly mess. The legislators themselves set up rules both on constituency allowances and the management of the House accoutns that allowed this sort of conflict of interest to take place over several years. The same group - the Internal Economy Commission - also set up the system that allegedly allowed for the missappropriation and misspending of over $4.0 million between 1999 and 2006.

The current review by Chief Justice Derek Green will propose new rules, but without a more detailed - and entirely public - examination, Green's recommendations will likely have the value of the sensible rules proposed in 1989 by former MUN president Dr. M.O. Morgan and followed until June 1996.

Green's review will be conducted entirely behind closed doors and has no mandate to delve into the previous misspending. In June 1996, the House of Assembly's internal management board voted to change the way constituency accounts were handled and in 1999/2000 changed other rules which the members knew or ought to have known would leave the Assembly's accounts rife for the sort of abuse that has recently come to light.

Politically, a public inquiry would be unpalatable to the Williams administration: in addition to the former Liberal government member's of the IEC would be examined, two current and one former senior minister in the current administration would also likely be examined on their decisions.

Deputy Premier Tom Rideout, finance minister Loyola Sullivan and former House leader Ed byrne sat on the IEC during the period after 1999 when crucial decisions were taken and much of the alleged abuse occured.

At least half of the alleged misspending/misappropriation took place after April 2004. When the scandal broke in June, Premier Danny Williams and other senior officials maintained that administrative changes made in the House of Assembly in April 2004 would make it difficult for abuse to occur after that date. Having agreed with those comments initially, subsequent reports by the Auditor General revealed sizeable financial irregularities occured up to at least December 2005.

Only a public inquiry will have the necessary legal powers to root out the truth of what has been going on with public money for the past decade.

Everything else is obfuscation.