09 February 2007

No charges for Hickey; defamation suit possible

According to news reports, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary will not be laying charges against transportation minister John Hickey [Right. Photo: cbc.ca] following an investigation of his double-billing for legislature expenses.

Hickey did double-bill the legislature for everything from donations to community groups to an apparently exorbitant monthly rental fee for a laptop computer.

If the computer had been purchased outright, the cost to the Crown would have been considerably less than a year's worth of payments at the rate indicated in the duplicate claims.

Hickey was initially relieved of cabinet duties but restored to cabinet by Premier Danny Williams shortly afterward in a move virtually unprecedented in parliamentary history.

It is customary to preserve the integrity of government by removing from cabinet any minister under criminal ivnestigation.

Hickey [Left. Double Photo: cbc.ca] told reporters: "I am completely vindicated."

Well, yes, there is vindication, at least to the extent that there was no criminal wrong-doing.

But Hickey most definitely did double-bill, and he has admitted to unspecified "mistakes". presumably that includes a situation in which two, and in one instance three claims, were filed for the same expense.

Like all newbie government members deployed as part of the government's communications strategy on the legislature scandal, Hickey lays the blame for the double-billing on the legislature's financial staff...presumably for not noticing that Hickey had in fact submitted duplicate claims for service not once, not twice, but 20 separate times. The duplicate claims were submitted in Fiscal Years 2003, 2004 and 2005. Hickey was first elected to the legislature in October 2003.

Hickey is also demanding an unqualified apology from former Premier Roger Grimes who stated publicly at the time, and as he repeated for news media today that he would "repeat every word that I've said publicly about how incompetent and dumb and stupid and sloppy that somebody like Mr. Hickey [Right. Hat-trick Photo: cbc.ca] would have to be to double-bill the government some 30-odd times and then pay the money back...".

Details of Hickey's double-billing can found in Auditor general John Noseworthy's report.

Among the billings were claims submitted twice for a chamber of commerce luncheon in November 2003. The first claim, along with the original invoice for $50.00 was submitted with a payment date of December 4, 2003. The claim was submitted a second time with a copy of the original invoice. Payment for the second claim was made in February 2004.

One of the most curious claims was a triplicate submission for an ad in the souvenir booklet for the 2004 Labrador Canoe Regatta. The first claim for $125, supported by an invoice apparently dated 22 July 04, was paid by the legislature on August 25, 2004. The second claim for the same ad was submitted with an invoice apparently dated in September 2004, was paid on October 6. A third claim - for the same ad - was submitted with a copy of a cancelled cheque apparently dated Aug 4. It was paid on February 4, 2005. None of the Auditor General's reports contains the actual date on which each claim was submitted.

Rather than sue Grimes, it would be far cheaper - not to mention genuinely open, transparent and accountable - for Hickey to hold a news conference, bring along his claims and explain what happened.

Otherwise, the public purse could be burdened completely needlessly by Hickey's legal fees.

Of course, if he had just kept track of what he was submitting, the whole thing would never have happened in the first place.

Then again, if Hickey [Left. Not exactly as illustrated] hadn't claimed to have a signed road construction contract on his desk last fall, he never would have been caught in an embarrassing fact malfunction under questioning in the legislature.