18 December 2006

There are duties and then there are duties

Finance Minister Loyola Sullivan says the comptroller general has a legal obligation to collect any money that's owed to the province.
Sullivan (right) made the comment when announcing today that the comptroller general would be sending letters to the five current and former members of the House of Assembly demanding repayment of alleged overpayments in the House of Assembly spending scandal.

Perhaps the finance minister should read all of the Financial Administration Act and acknowledge that significant details of the House of Assembly scandal have not been properly investigated and disclosed to the public.

For example, the comptroller general has a legal obligation to maintain the public accounts under terms set out in s. 27:
27. (1) The comptroller general shall keep a ledger in which shall be entered the departmental appropriations by Heads of Expenditure and by subheads and subdivisions in accordance with the subhead and subdivision allocations exhibited in the estimates for the fiscal year concerned, as amended in accordance with this Act, against which shall be charged all authorized expenditures.

(2) The comptroller general shall establish and maintain a record of commitments chargeable to each appropriation in the form that the board may prescribe.

(3) The comptroller general shall furnish to each deputy minister or other officer charged with the administration of a Head of Expenditure a statement of the charges entered against the Head of Expenditure or a subhead or subdivision of a Head of Expenditure and those statements shall be furnished at those periods that the deputy minister may reasonably require and shall show the charges made during the report period together with the balances at the credit of the Head of Expenditure or subheads or subdivisions at the end of each period concerned.

(4) When a subhead or a subdivision is exhausted, the comptroller general shall at once notify the deputy minister concerned and the comptroller general shall not sanction a further charge to be entered against that subhead or subdivision except as provided in this Act.

Notice that the comptroller general is responsible to track expenditures and to advise the deputy minister concerned - in this case the Clerk of the House of Assembly - that a line item has been overspent.

Under s.27.(4), the comptroller general "shall not sanction a further charge to be entered against that subhead or subdivision".

In the House of Assembly scandal we simply do not know what, if anything, the comptroller general did to discharge this responsibility. Had this responsibility been properly discharged, we likely wouldn't be looking at the mess we have today. If the comptroller general did his duty but was overruled by others, then the public has an incontrovertible right to know and to hold accountable those who sanctioned the overspending.

We do know that in from 1998 to 2005, the allowances and assistance budget for the House of Assembly was overspent to a total of $3.2 million. The Auditor General has only identified $1.58 million in excess spending. The table above shows the excess spending compared to the budget (red line) compared to the totals identified by the Auditor General (yellow line). Over half the overspending remains unaccounted for even after two supposedly thorough investigations by the Auditor General.

But wait.

It gets better.

Under s. 29, the comptroller general has further statutory obligations:
29. The comptroller general shall ensure that no payment of public money is made

(a) for which there is no legislative appropriation;

(b) for which no other appropriation has been provided under this Act;

(c) which is in excess of an appropriation; or

(d) which is in excess of sums that may have been deposited with the government in trust for a person,

and the comptroller general shall report to the board a case which comes to his or her notice in which liability has been incurred by a minister, deputy minister or other officer or person which contravenes this Act and the board may take whatever action in the matter that it considers necessary. [Emphasis added]
The comptroller general is specifically enjoined not to disburse money in excess of an appropriation. He is also obliged to report overspending to the treasury board. That is in addition to reporting to the appropriate deputy minister of equivalent.

Even if the deputy minister involved fails to act, there are others above him or her who have legal duties: the members of treasury board, all of whom are cabinet ministers.

One of the key members of treasury board is the president, which for several years is a position occupied by the minister of finance under successive Liberal and now Progressive Conservative administrations.

We know that significant overspending - about $1.0 million - occurred since Loyola Sullivan has been finance minister, president of treasury board and a member of the House of Assembly's Internal Economy Commission. Over $800,000 of that amount remains unexplained.

We have a right to know what happened.

Loyola has a duty to tell us.

When can we expect that duty to be discharged?