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Expand Niagara Parks probe, Ontario NDP leader urges

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's Auditor General, and perhaps the police, should investigate alleged impropriety at the Niagara Parks Commission so that the Crown agency can credibly move on from two years of controversy, the leader of the New Democratic Party says.

"Trying to clean up the mess going forward, that's fine," Andrea Horwath said in an interview Tuesday, after she rose in the legislature to question the Liberal government's oversight of the agency that manages Canada's top tourist attraction. "But let's talk about the failures of people with significant responsibility - ministers of the Crown - to deal with this problem a lot earlier on."

Ms. Horwath said the government needs to disclose "who knew what and when" about past problems at Niagara Parks, adding that its scandals over untendered contracting and lavish travel spending mirror those at other provincial agencies such as eHealth.

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James Bradley, a veteran of the Liberal cabinet, has said he received an anonymous letter detailing "financial improprieties" at Niagara Parks in 2005, when he was tourism minister, but that a government-led forensic audit did not support the claims. Liberal MPP Kim Craitor, meanwhile, said about 15 parks employees approached him with allegations in 2006 or 2007.

It took until 2009, after a political appointee to the agency's board had gone public with complaints about an untendered lease for the Maid of the Mist tour boat operation, for the government to intervene at the agency.

An ongoing Globe investigation has since uncovered $400,000 in travel spending by a parks executive; personal connections between a board member and parks contractors; previous audits critical of the agency's governance and business practices; and an alleged forgery by a parks employee that was reported to government investigators in 2008. It is unclear what became of the report.

The parks commission, set up 125 years ago to protect one of the world's most recognizable natural wonders, Niagara Falls, spends $77-million a year managing 1,720 hectares along the Niagara River. It generates its own operating funds from attractions, gift shops, golf courses and other enterprises, but relies on provincial loans for capital projects and has lost money for the past four years, the first losses in its history.

In search of a clean slate at the agency, Tourism Minister Michael Chan removed four board members Monday and replaced them with six senior civil servants, who will work with a recently appointed chairwoman and vice-chairwoman to rebuild the board.

Mr. Chan also announced two new audits "to restore public confidence" - one of executive travel, meal and hospitality expenses; the other of the agency's procurements going back three years. They will be conducted by the Finance Ministry's internal audit division, the same body that has conducted previous Niagara Parks investigations.

Ms. Horwath said that's not good enough. She argued the provincial Auditor General, as an officer of the legislature and not the government, has the independence and public reporting mandate necessary to clear the air.

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"If this audit process is under the auspices of the ministry, then what's going to be disclosed?" she asked. "Where's the guarantee that information that's revealed in this audit is going to be made public?"

The forgery allegation, or any potentially criminal allegation that might arise during the audits, should be forwarded to the police, Ms. Horwath said.

"In any other situation where there's an allegation of criminal activity, that's what gets done with it," she said. "The same thing should be done in this situation."

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