The Ontario Legislature's fall session began yesterday with the opposition formally accusing Premier Dalton McGuinty of misleading the public over a provincial agency embroiled in a spending scandal.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak set the tone during Question Period by asking the Premier about his "summer of scandal." It was Mr. Hudak's first opportunity to confront Mr. McGuinty face-to-face in the legislature since he became leader in June.
The Conservatives have kept the Premier on the defensive all summer over lavish spending at two provincial agencies, and government officials were bracing for a fresh round of revelations from the opposition when the legislature returned.
"I just kept waiting and waiting," a government source said yesterday.
But Mr. Hudak confined his attacks to scandal-plagued eHealth Ontario and statements made by Mr. McGuinty that, Mr. Hudak says, are "demonstrably false."
The Tories and New Democrats together lodged a formal complaint with the Speaker's Office, accusing the Premier and Health Minister David Caplan of deliberately misleading the legislature about a review of eHealth.
The matter dates back to early June, when Mr. McGuinty said accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers had been retained to conduct an independent review of lucrative contracts the agency had awarded to consultants without competitive tenders.
But there never was a contract in place to retain the accounting firm, Mr. Hudak said.
"He misled Ontarians," he said. "It is clear that Ontarians cannot trust him to fix the culture of entitlement that he himself created."
Mr. McGuinty said during Question Period that the Pricewaterhouse review was called off because the provincial auditor was already conducting his own review of eHealth.
"It was certainly my understanding that PWC had been retained," Mr. McGuinty said. "There is no nefarious plot afoot, as my friend may intimate.
The government has been under siege over eHealth since last May, when the Tories obtained documents through a freedom-of-information request, showing that the agency awarded sole-sourced contracts to consultants, many of whom submitted nickel-and-dime expense claims. The revelations led to the resignations of CEO Sarah Kramer and chairman Alan Hudson in June.
The Premier's Office released several letters, showing that Mr. Caplan had, in fact, asked Dr. Hudson to undertake an immediate third-party review of eHealth's management practices.
"I am troubled by inadequate reassurances following reports about eHealth Ontario's spending practices," Mr. Caplan says in the letter, dated June 1.
But the audit was called off after Auditor-General Jim McCarter wrote to Rita Burak, Dr. Hudson's successor, on June 29, saying that having Pricewaterhouse do a review would amount to a potential duplication of his work.
Mr. McGuinty has taken steps to rein in agencies that operate at arm's length from the government, after spending scandals at eHealth and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. The government fired the lottery corporation's CEO, Kelly McDougald, with cause, and the entire board resigned amid revelations of wining and dining by employees. Ms. McDougald has launched a lawsuit against the government.
Yesterday, the government announced that senior executives at 21 of the province's largest agencies will be required to publish their spending on travel and entertainment online, beginning no later than April 1.
"We're going to shine a light on expenses so Ontarians will know who exactly is spending what exactly," Mr. McGuinty told reporters.