Provincial auditors were watching as a Niagara Parks Commission executive jetted around the world and spent nearly $400,000 on a company credit card, but found nothing wrong with his expense claims, the ex-chairman of the Ontario government agency says.
"Joel [Noden]rsquo;s travel expenses were the subject of two provincial audits ... and there was never anything found untoward in terms of what he had been declaring or the reasons for it," said Jim Williams, the commission's politically appointed chairman from 2004 to 2009.
During the final three years of Mr. Williams's tenure, Mr. Noden spent $395,751 on his corporate credit card and claimed $23,950 in out-of-pocket expenses, according to records The Globe and Mail obtained through a freedom-of-information request. The purchases, made as Mr. Noden travelled the world on parks business, included stays at high-end hotels, roller-coaster rides and hefty restaurant and bar tabs.
Mr. Williams said questions were raised about Mr. Noden's expenses during that period, but auditors from the Finance Ministry found no problems, so it was business as usual.
"What makes you think that no one has questioned it and determined the legitimacy of these expenses?" Mr. Williams said.
A spokesman for Tourism Minister Michael Chan disputed Mr. Williams's claim, saying the scope of any audits conducted during the relevant time period "did not include employee expenses."
The Globe has requested but not yet received detailed receipts of Mr. Noden's credit card purchases. Mr. Noden, who left his $130,000-a-year job at the parks commission on Nov. 9, has not responded to requests for interviews.
The issue of his expenses arose during Question Period at Queen's Park on Tuesday, where New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath mentioned Mr. Noden's $1,800 nightclub tab, $200 liquor-store purchase, a pound of Starbucks coffee claimed as a meal and rides on a Las Vegas roller-coaster.
"Ontario families were literally taken for a ride," Ms. Horwath said, adding that "when people hear stories of backroom, sole-sourced deals and lavish executive spending ... they quickly lose faith." She later told reporters, "Niagara Parks Commission is an organization that needs to clean house."
Tourism Minister Michael Chan, whose portfolio includes the self-funding, arm's-length parks commission, said Mr. Noden's expenses were incurred before Premier Dalton McGuinty directed provincial agencies in September, 2009, to follow public service guidelines strictly.
"These expenses are no longer acceptable," Mr. Chan said, adding that Mr. Williams's successor in the parks chair, Fay Booker, "has made significant changes to the corporate culture" at the agency.
Ms. Booker was taken aback when told that John Kernahan, the agency's general manager and top bureaucrat, said he hadn't looked at Mr. Noden's expenses in years, and had delegated authority for their approval to an official who was Mr. Noden's equal on the corporate hierarchy.
Mr. Williams said that had been the practice at Niagara Parks for several years, and it was common during his own 35 years in the federal bureaucracy. "It happens all the time; it happens in government," he said.
Ms. Booker has discontinued the practice. "The point is what is appropriate, and to get the accountabilities appropriate," she said. "Even though it was existing practice, does that make it okay?"
With a report from Karen Howlett