04 January 2007

Williams punts transport minister to sidelines in audit scandal

Transportation minister John Hickey (PC-Lake Melville) is a serving cabinet minister - collecting full cabinet salary this evening, but stripped of actual ministerial duties in the latest problem in expense claims by members of the House of Assembly.

Premier Danny Williams met with Hickey at sometime this morning, according to CBC television news, but for some incomprehensible reason waited until 3:00 PM to advise news media - and the general public of the latest financial irregularity. The pattern mirrors the day Williams broke the scandal when he waited eight hours to reveal the first problem.

Williams said the province's auditor general had uncovered 20 instances of Hickey filing duplicate claims for miscellaneous expenses under his constituency allowance dating back to his election in October 2003. Some of the claims were for donations to unspecified community groups. The total double-billing amounted to $3700.

While the Premier was quick to encourage people to reserve judgment, his own actions suggest there is more to this latest incident than meets the eye. If the matter was a simple accounting error, as Williams suggested to reporters, then it would be easy to determine and correct without side-lining the minister involved.

Under the provincial Auditor General Act, the AG is required to notify officials of problems if he perceives a breach of legislation, including the Criminal Code of Canada. This presumes that the AG is capable or or has conducted sufficient investigation to make a determination, based on reasonable grounds, that a violation has occurred. To date Noseworthy's investigations have been accepted by news reporters as having included investigations comparable to those carried out by the police.

They haven't.

In each instance, Noseworthy has reported to authorities at the first appearance of an irregularity without determining at all the nature of the alleged irregularity. Some aspects of his investigations - the absence of sworn statements, failure to disclose information while making accusations of criminal wrongdoing - suggest the AG is incompetent.

In the Hickey case however, the amounts are small - $3700 - and the number of claims so small over a limited period that it would ordinarily be extremely easy to make a reasonable conclusion as to whether the double-billing was inadvertent or deliberate. With inadvertent billings - for example by a new assistant who was unsure of the process corrective action far short of firing or suspension would be warranted.

Under those circumstances, Williams' scrum today would have consisted of a simple statement: "We found the problem. Here's what it was. John cut me a cheque. Everything's kosher."

Diligent response and prompt, thorough disclosure would forestall misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

In the case of deliberate acts, those would be apparently criminal. Suspension and an immediate police investigation would be the logical consequence.

Williams' scrum today suggested a response somewhere between the two. That vague, almost contradictory response will lead to further speculation that information is being deliberately withheld or that there is more to the Hickey matter than disclosed or known.

Revelations about Hickey are a reminder than more than half of the inappropriate spending alleged to have occurred in the House of Assembly took place after April 2004. Of the more than $3.2 million overspent by the legislature between 1998 and 2005, less than half has been turned up by the AG before he shut down his investigation. Of the $1.6 million in unexplained spending, about $800,000 was disbursed in 2004 and 2005. In addition, the bulk of questionable payments made to three suppliers occurred after 2003.