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Premier's conniptions slipping in news lineup

The premier's latest attack on Stephen Harper was the top story last night on the NTV Evening Newshour, which is not exactly a surprise. The story has plenty of conflict and some people are still interested in it.

But it is slipping in importance.

The story barely made it to the bottom of page one of today's Telegram.

More significantly, the top three stories on CBC Here & Now last night had nothing to do with Premier Williams. In fact, it wasn't mentioned until 15 minutes into the newscast. Was this by accident (which can happen when the item isn't ready) or design? I called Peter Gullage, the executive producer for news, to find out more.

"On a day when a police officer was charged with a crime," he said, "seven kids are buried in New Brunswick and there is a story there with implications for parents in this province a story about the same old story, about The Premier Who Cried Steve, is not the lede story."

Gullage added that the story did receive a place in the newscast, "and that is where it should have been. It's not new information. It's just the same storyline that's coming out of the eighth floor and it's starting to feel a little old."

Gullage said that much thought and team discussion is invested in the decision on where stories are placed in the newscast. "We decided that that was the appropriate place for the story."

Here & Now also carried an excellent item last night by Deanne Fleet, about the muzzling of the auditor general and the implications this may have for media in unearthing future financial abuses within government. You can watch the whole show (up to about 6:00 pm Thursday) by going here and clicking Watch CBC News: Here & Now'.

UPDATE: A couple of readers have sent me notes, pointing out that the auditor general story was broken several weeks ago by The Telegram. True enough. I was aware of this, but was happy just to see the story followed and kept "alive" because it is so critically important. (These rules make it easy for government to suppress another spending scandal, if and when it happens again.) It was Rob Antle who wrote the piece in The Telegram and, for those who missed it, here's the full text:

New law gags AG

MHAs will now get special treatment

By Rob Antle

Premier Danny Williams re-opened House of Assembly spending to scrutiny by the auditor general after taking office four years ago.

But a law passed by his government this summer sets out special treatment for MHAs and House staff who may have improperly retained public money, and gags the auditor general from talking about such situations.

The text of the legislation comes directly from the draft law recommended by Chief Justice Derek Green in his "Rebuilding Confidence" report.

It was adopted as part of Bill 33, which the legislature swiftly - and unanimously - passed in June.

Elizabeth Matthews, a spokeswoman for Williams, said the government followed through with "full implementation" of the chief justice's recommendations, and steered requests for comment to the Speaker of the House.

Beginning in mid-2006, Auditor General John Noseworthy made public a series of special reports into constituency allowance spending that may have involved "the improper retention or misappropriation of public money" by MHAs.

He filed so-called "Section 15" reports alerting the provincial cabinet of such situations.

MHAs, staffers exempted

The new law passed this summer exempts MHAs and key House staffers from Section 15.

"Section 15 of the Auditor General Act does not apply to a member, the clerk, clerk assistant or staff of the House of Assembly service," the law notes.

The new legislation also restricts who the auditor general can inform of questionable spending by MHAs. Now, he can only tell the politicians themselves - the Speaker, the chair of the audit committee, the premier, the leader of the MHA's political party, the attorney general and the minister of finance.

Limited to general description

As far as public disclosure goes, the auditor general can only provide "a general description of the incidents referred to" in such reports on inappropriate MHA spending.

He is only permitted to do so once a year, when he tables his annual report.

Any MHA identified as spending money inappropriately will receive "full disclosure" of the AG's information, and get a chance to state their case.

The law bans the AG from telling anyone such a report even exists, except in accordance with a judicial proceeding, a meeting of the government's public accounts committee, or following a request from the commission of politicians governing the legislature.

Noseworthy's reports into MHA spending sparked a raft of police investigations, and fraud-related charges against four former provincial politicians and a key House bureaucrat. Other MHAs were cited in the AG's reports for inappropriate spending, such as double billing.

Police determined there was insufficient evidence to charge some MHAs with a crime.

From now on, their names will remain secret. So will details of their transgressions - except for the "general description" in the annual report.

A series of Telegram stories over the past week have questioned rental claims made by deputy premier Tom Rideout between late 2004 and early 2007.

Rideout has cited Noseworthy's review of his files in defending himself.

But Noseworthy is now not allowed, by law, to say anything about Rideout's spending. Under the new legislation, the only public disclosure of inappropriate MHA or staff spending will happen if criminal charges are filed.

Premier Danny Williams appeared to set criminal conduct as the new ethical benchmark for ministers when questioned by reporters about the Rideout situation Tuesday.

Williams said Rideout would stay on as deputy premier, despite Telegram reports that he charged taxpayers for both a rental home and accommodations per diems in his Lewisporte district, because there is no evidence of "illegal activity."

Asked by The Telegram whether that means the standard for ministers is that, as long as their activity is not illegal, it's fine, Williams said, "We as a government will get involved (when there is) illegal activity. From my own perspective, I'm not going to sit down and pass judgment on every single member - whether they're NDP or Liberal or PC or anybody else - every single time the press decides that there's a question here of whether this was proper spending of money or not."

Now, taxpayers will not find out about any such situations unearthed by the auditor general unless criminal charges are filed.

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