31 January 2008

AG raises issues with public cash in three private ventures

in his annual report, the Auditor general examined the provincial government's investment programs for business, including three businesses which fell outside the programs already established.

The three companies are identified as High Technology Company A, High Technology Company B and High Technology R&D Company. They are, in order, Blue Line, Consilient and Trans Ocean, as revealed by comparing Volume II of the Public Accounts with the AG report.

The Auditor General's conclusions on the three were:

We are of the opinion that there is no explicit authority under the Financial Administration Act
for the Department to make direct investments in companies. During 2005-06, the Department made three such investments totalling $1,050,000 to three companies. Furthermore, there are no documented procedures for approving, disbursing and monitoring such unique investments and, as a result, these investments were not subject to the same due diligence required for investments under the SME Fund. As a result, there were deficiencies. For example:

- none of the three companies were required to repay the investment contingent on either income earned or a maximum seven year period;

- one company was not required to submit documentation to support specific expenditures;

- shareholders for one company (Knowledge-based IT Company A) who received $500,000 were not required to make new equity investments as part of their contribution to the project; instead,
previous investments were accepted;

- shareholders for one company (Knowledge-based IT Company B) who received $500,000 were not required to provide personal net worth statements; and

- Department officials were not entitled to attend any company meetings for one company (Knowledge-based IT Company B) even though the company was provided with funding totalling $500,000

The innovation department responded:

With respect to other investments outside our normal programs, we do not concur with your interpretation that there is no explicit authority under the Financial Administration Act for the Department to make direct investments in companies. We understand that there is a separate section
in the Report on the Financial Administration Act to which the Department of Finance has responded.

Government, as has always been the case, receives proposals from companies seeking financial assistance of various types and levels that do not fit our normal business programs. Government reviews each case based on its own merit, including full due diligence, and, when considered appropriate, has provided assistance to some of these companies. The process that is followed in these cases is the Cabinet process. Economic development and business growth, especially new growth sectors, are priorities. Access to capital is an important issue for these SMEs in this Province. These investments levered additional funding for these companies and involved young entrepreneurs, leading edge technology, the potential to increase export sales and to increase quality employment opportunities in new growth sectors for our post-secondary graduates.

As noted, these investments were approved, with the required analysis and due diligence outside the SME program and therefore were not subject to the same requirements for auditing purposes. At the time of the approval, the Department did not have a program to support commercial research and development, and/or invest in businesses at the pre-commercial stage of operation. Since then, the Department has established a Commercialization Program that accommodates projects of this nature.

Given that these transactions took place two fiscal years ago, perhaps the Auditor General will report on some more recent transactions similar to the ones cited above - which took place since then - when he issues his next report: January 2009.