At least there’s going to be an impartial investigation.
Thursday, Premier Tom Marshall said he’s asked the province’s auditor general, Terry Paddon, to investigate the circumstances surrounding a highway paving contract that has dominated question period in the House of Assembly all week.
The case is an interesting one: Humber Valley Paving (HVP), which had been run by incoming premier Frank Coleman, went to the government to be released from a Labrador paving contract that it was having trouble completing. HVP got paid for the work it had done, and was released from penalties that the province could have imposed for its failure to finish the work. The decision to release the company’s bonds — insurance that the work would be completed — was made by a provincial cabinet minister after a meeting with Frank Coleman’s son. Both Coleman and his son have since left HVP.
From an ethical point of view, it’s the right thing to do: Transportation Minister Nick McGrath can go on and on about how he did nothing improper in having a one-on-one meeting with Coleman’s son, Gene, but that doesn’t do anything to clear the air.
It’s also the right thing to do from a political point of view: the Tories have been getting hammered in question period over the paperless deal. With the case now before the auditor general, the government has essentially tamped down the debate. If they’re asked questions about the situation now, look for them to smugly say, “The case is under investigation, Mr. Speaker, and we’ll be making no comment until that investigation is complete.”
That’s the double-edged sword of calling for an impartial investigation of a political case. To their credit, so far, the provincial Tories have continued answering the opposition’s questions even after calling in the auditor. There’s also the danger for the opposition that an independent arbiter may come back and say there’s nothing to their new favourite issue.
There are some real problems you can foresee with the auditor general’s review, though.
The main issue? The fact that so much of the case hinges on a recordless discussion between McGrath and Gene Coleman.
McGrath, oddly, has been trumpeting the absence of a paper trail from the beginning of the case. On Monday, he was already stressing that there were “verbal conversations.” When Liberal Andrew Parsons asked on Tuesday, “Despite all the negotiations and discussions between March 13 and March 21, does the minister still stand by his statement yesterday that there was no written documentation whatsoever relating to these discussions?” McGrath answered “Yes, Mr. Speaker.”
The auditor general, then, will have to establish what was said in that meeting from the recollections of the participants, and decide whether what was discussed was improper or unusual.
It certainly appears to be unusual.
Other people who do business with government point out the situation is far from the regular order of business: meeting a cabinet minister to argue your company should be released from its contractual obligations without penalty is not the normal course of action. Normally, the government insists the terms of the contract be met, and there are plenty of companies who suggest they’ve had very different treatment.
Having no political eyes assess the process will be worthwhile; it will be interesting to see which edge of the sword ends up doing the cutting.