21 February 2017

Paddon's report on Martin contract just bizarre #nlpoli

After a lengthy review,  Auditor General Terry Paddon said Monday that the provincial government hounded former Nalcor boss Ed Martin out of his job.  He had no choice but leave and since he never quit and no one fired him,  Martin was entitled to the multi-million separation payments he got

"The events which [sic] occurred in the months leading up to Mr. Martin’s cessation of employment and which culminated in the wording in the Budget speech on April 14, 2016 and subsequent comments to the media by Government officials were tantamount to constructive dismissal."

 What's truly bizarre, though, is the behaviour Paddon considered to be harassment.

You can find the events - there are only three big ones - listed on page 15 of Paddon's report.

First, the provincial government asked an external consult to review the construction timetable and cost estimates for the troubled Muskrat Falls project.  It is currently running two years behind schedule and close to triple the original budget.

Second, "there were concerns" about a construction contract.  Paddon neglects to point out what the concerns were.

Third, the provincial natural resources minister asked for a copy of Martin's employment contract.

That's it.

And to cap it off, adds Paddon, the government had the temerity to comment about Nalcor in the spring budget. In that environment, Paddon claimed, Martin had no choice but leave and the Nalcor board was justified in paying Martin everything he received.

The problems with Paddon's conclusion are the lack of evidence to support them.  There's nothing unusual about any of the things Paddon cites as harassment.  Indeed, at the level Martin worked at, on a troubled and highly contentious project,  Martin should have welcomed an independent review of his management.

Paddon left out of his report Dwight Ball's full-throated endorsements of Martin other than in that period in April 2016.  One of the most obvious ones is Ball's statement in April 2016 that when faced with Martin's ultimatum,  his first reaction - his FIRST reaction - was to try and find a way to get Martin to stay.  Paddon offers nothing to suggest that wasn't true.

What's more troubling, though, is Paddon's deliberately misleading description of the Astaldi contract fiasco.  This is an aspect where it appears that Martin's memory lapses about the nature of the problem with the contract when asked about it publicly in 2015 and again at the time he quit. This is a crucial detail and the way Paddon tries to obscure it is a serious indictment of Paddon's judgement.

That doesn't mean Dwight Ball can escape criticism.  We already knew about Ball's mishandling of the events in April.  That much has been plain from reports at the time.  All Paddon does is confirm them.  Paddon's tendency to use the passive voice when describing key decisions and events  - "a decision was reached" - is troublesome.  It is a deliberate effort to obscure who was actually responsible and on what basis Paddon reached his conclusions.  Either Paddon knew and did not want to say because it conflicted with his conclusion or Paddon simply did not investigate thoroughly enough to reach a well-founded conclusion.

We have seen these incomplete reports before.  Paddon's look at Humber Valley Paving had some curious gaps in it.  It is also akin to key parts of John Noseworthy's investigation of the House of Assembly scandal where Noseworthy's vague wording hid some serious failures by Noseworthy and his investigators.  They just didn't know the answers - about rings for example - and so they wrote a sentence that implied fraud. Noseworthy's report said that his staff found no rings, implying they didn't exist.  The truth was that they did not look for them.  That's the sort of fundamental dishonesty that simply isn't permissible in work of this sort.

We also knew, and Paddon merely confirms, that Ball did nothing between his first meeting with Martin on the 17th and their subsequent meeting on April 19th to look at options or even determine the financial impact of Martin's departure.  Dwight Ball's own statements in April and May 2016 made it clear that he knew Martin would receive a severance payout. He took no action to stop it and indeed appears to have made no objections at all until public controversy erupted about the amount.  

Paddon also describes accurately Ball's apparent tendency to dither and obfuscate. As others have noted, Ball seldom makes definitive statements.  he sometimes goes along with the flow rather than make definitive statements.  The result is that he makes decisions by default or people misunderstand what he really intends.  That is essentially how we got into this mess in the first place.

Dwight Ball referred this issue to the Auditor General to end the controversy that helped to destroy his reputation last spring.  He may well have hoped - as he said at the time - that Paddon would confirm Ball's version of events.  As it turned out,  Paddon did not do that and, in truth, unless someone uncovered a completely different set of facts, there was no way he could.  We already knew that Ball was aware of the severance payments at the time and approved them either openly or tacitly. Balls' own comments had made that plain.  People wondered why Ball persisted in saying things that were at odds with his own version of events shown in the documents he made public. It was nuts.

As dubious as Paddon's report is, the report will have an impact.  Public opinion of the Premier won't get much worse buts that's just because it is already appallingly low for a first time Premier. The political problem for Ball is that because Paddon's report didn't exonerate him, the Premier's standing won't get any better. That's not going to help if Dwight Ball plans to stay around longer than this year.  He will need a win at some point.  So far he hasn't had one and that will take its toll.