The controversy over alleged impropriety at the Niagara Parks Commission is now reaching back almost a decade to when Ontario's Conservative government was in power, and when the party's current leader, Tim Hudak, was the minister responsible for the agency.
As an ongoing management purge claimed the agency's top bureaucrat, John Kernahan, on Thursday, Globe and Mail sources confirmed that a letter in 2001, addressed to Mr. Hudak and eight others, raised specific concerns about another parks commission executive.
The executive, Joel Noden, remained at the commission until he was fired last month, days before The Globe reported on the $400,000 in travel and entertainment expenses he claimed in a three-year period.
Mr. Hudak, who was minister of tourism when the letter was sent, said he doesn't recall anything about it. "Listen, I was minister about a decade ago, so I don't have a recollection of this letter," he said in an interview.
The letter raises more questions about how long provincial governments have been hearing about problems at the public agency that manages Canada's top tourist attraction, and what was done about them. The concerns in the anonymous letter involved Mr. Noden's buying trips to Asia, alleged favours for his friends and his dealings with staff. Other addressees included then-premier Mike Harris, Liberal MPP James Bradley, New Democrat MPP Peter Kormos, parks commissioners and officials.
The Globe recently reported that two Liberal MPPs, including former tourism minister Mr. Bradley, were told of allegations of impropriety as far back as 2005.
The Liberals, in government since 2003, did not undertake substantive changes at Niagara Parks until 2009, after a political appointee to the commission's board had gone public with complaints about untendered contracting. A subsequent Globe investigation revealed government reports critical of governance and business practices; personal links between a commission appointee and parks contractors; Mr. Noden's travel spending; and concerns raised by a former official about a lack of financial controls.
Mr. Kernahan's departure, announced as a retirement, comes less than three weeks after he told The Globe that he hadn't examined Mr. Noden's expense claims "in years," despite a mandate to do so as the agency's top manager. He said that authority had been delegated to corporate services director Robert McIlveen, Mr. Noden's corporate equal, who countered that only Mr. Kernahan could approve executive expenses.
Mr. McIlveen has been named Mr. Kernahan's interim replacement.
In addition to the departures of Mr. Kernahan and Mr. Noden, four members of the agency's appointed 12-member board were removed this week by Tourism Minister Michael Chan and replaced with senior civil servants. Mr. Chan also ordered new internal audits of executive expenses and procurements going back three years.
In May, Mr. Chan appointed Fay Booker, a governance and auditing consultant, as board chairwoman and gave her a mandate to update agency practices, overhaul its structure and sharpen board governance.
On Thursday, three Conservative MPPs rose in the legislature to accuse Ms. Booker of awarding contracts to friends and raising her own pay, the very type of behaviours she has been told to root out.
Ted Arnott, the party's tourism critic, said Ms. Booker "is more interested in helping herself double her pay," and asked how Mr. Chan could support her "now that he knows she's been caught breaking the rules for her friends and for herself."
Ms. Booker, who has actually cut commissioners' pay by halving the number of board meetings and restructuring them, said she was floored by the "misinformation" used to attack her credibility.
"To say it's just politics is just a weak excuse," Ms. Booker said in an interview, after addressing each of the claims in detail. "The Conservatives were in power for many years. Are they afraid of what's going to come out?"
Asked about his party's claims against Ms. Booker, Mr. Hudak said, "We stand behind what we said during Question Period today."
The New Democrats did not address Ms. Booker's performance but continued to press for an independent investigation in place of the internal audits ordered by Mr. Chan.
"Why won't the Premier call in the Auditor-General to investigate allegations of wrongdoings at the Niagara Parks Commission?" NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.
Citing the parks commission's "incredibly important mandate" and six recent Globe reports on concerns about the agency, Ms. Horwath made a written request to Auditor-General Jim McCarter to "conclusively address these disturbing revelations, put the NPC back on track, and restore public confidence in the organization."
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