New government audits will do little to dispel the cloud hanging over the Niagara Parks Commission if recent history is a guide, the agency's former general manager says.
The Ontario Crown agency, which manages Canada's top tourist attraction, is undergoing a high-level shakeup due to a continuing Globe and Mail investigation of executive expenses, untendered contracts, cronyism and complaints of financial improprieties dating back nearly a decade.
Scrutiny of the $77-million-a-year commission has intensified since its politically appointed board voted to grant the Maid of the Mist tour boat operation a new 25-year lease without competitive bids in 2008.
After that decision, auditors from the Finance Ministry were sent in 2009 to examine the agency's procurement practices, but their generalized, delicately worded findings failed to convey the extent of problems, said Robert Tytaneck, who was top bureaucrat at Niagara Parks from 1995 to 1998.
Mr. Tytaneck told The Globe and Mail he is concerned that "the government is still trying to sweep this under the carpet" and "make it go away" by ordering fresh audits by the same Finance Ministry branch instead of an outside probe.
Liberal Tourism Minister Michael Chan has spent the past two weeks refusing Opposition calls for an independent investigation. On Thursday, New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath used the last Question Period of 2010 to accuse Mr. Chan of "burying his head in the sand" by having the government probe its own agency.
Mr. Chan said the new probes will include a "forensic audit" to begin in January "that will focus on several aspects of the commission's operation."
A ministry spokesman, Mukunthan Paramalingham, said the scope of the audits is "broad" and that "all sources of information will be used to the greatest possible extent." If wrongdoing is uncovered, "we will take whatever action is deemed necessary," he said.
Mr. Tytaneck said his own efforts to reform the agency were "not well received," adding that the government must give investigators "carte blanche" this time to examine everything from the effectiveness of management decisions to vendors who have done business with the agency.
The Globe's investigation has found that politicians from all three provincial parties were warned of irregularities as far back as 2001, when the Conservatives were in power and the party's current leader, Tim Hudak, was tourism minister. Veteran Liberal cabinet minister James Bradley, who held the same portfolio in 2005, received similar warnings.
Some of the complaints, detailed in an anonymous letter addressed to Mr. Hudak, Mr. Bradley and seven other officials in 2001, concerned Joel Noden, a senior executive in charge of retail, marketing and revenue generation. Mr. Noden, who spent 13 years at the commission, was fired without cause on Nov. 9, a few days before The Globe published details of the $400,000 he spent on travel and entertainment from 2006 to 2009. Mr. Noden has said the expenses were justified and in line with commission policies of the period
The Globe has since uncovered personal connections between a commission member and parks contractors, and an alleged forgery of Mr. Noden's signature by a parks employee that was reported to provincial investigators in 2008.
Mr. Chan, who dismissed the forgery allegation as "false," has nonetheless made significant changes at Niagara Parks since he became Tourism Minister in January. In May, he appointed governance expert Fay Booker to chair the commission's board and lead an overhaul of the agency's practices, which is well under way.
More recently, Niagara Parks general manager John Kernahan left the agency, and Mr. Chan temporarily replaced four board members with senior bureaucrats.
Some of the audit work Mr. Chan has ordered will involve an external investigations firm, but it will report its findings to the internal audit division of the Finance Ministry. The same body conducted the 2009 procurement audit, which The Globe obtained in a freedom-of-information request and asked Mr. Tytaneck to review.
He said the audit found "gaps in Park procedures that one could drive a supertanker through" - including poor record-keeping, weak assessment criteria for projects and contractors, and a complete lack of written policies in some areas - but the deficiencies were couched in gently worded generalizations about "best practices."
"Regretfully, the audit recommendations play down the seriousness of the problems," Mr. Tytaneck said.
Ms. Horwath, whose party has tried in vain to have Auditor General Jim McCarter conduct a "special audit" at Niagara Parks, fears the same result from the new probes. Mr. Chan's office has said only "a summary" of the findings will be made public.
"That's about as transparent as the mist coming off Niagara Falls," Ms. Horwath said.