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public accounts

Tony Clement, shown in his Parliament Hill office on Nov. 5, 2010, was industry minister during the G8 summit in his Muskoa riding.DAVE CHAN

The federal New Democrats say Treasury Board President Tony Clement misled a Commons committee when he testified about G8 money spent in his riding and the official record of his testimony was altered to remove his promise to provide requested documents.

NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Alexandre Boulerice held a news conference on Wednesday morning to provide reporters with new material their party has obtained to explain how $50-million was awarded to 32 projects in Mr. Clement's Muskoka riding including gazebos, sidewalks and sports facilities.

Mr. Angus told reporters the new allegations call into question whether Mr. Clement, as head of the Treasury Board, should be the person the government has charged with overseeing the federal spending of $280 billion.

"There was a time when a minister who spent $50-million without providing any documentation would have been subject to serious sanction," Mr. Angus said. "We now have the question of a parliamentary minister of the Crown coming to a parliamentary committee, providing false information and having someone, whoever it was, alter the public record."

When he appeared before the Commons public accounts committee on Nov. 2, Mr. Clement said a 33rd project was removed from the list on the direction of the municipality.

"One [of the projects]fell off the table because the local municipality decided that, because they would be incurring costs as well, that they did not want to be responsible to their taxpayer base for that," the minister testified.

But an e-mail from a representative of the town of Gravenhurst to the minister's constituency office says the mayor had been advised by Mr. Clement that "this project should be removed from the G8 Project List and be included in the Town of Gravenhurst's application for the Building Canada Fund – on the advice of Mr. Minister Clement, please remove this project from the G8 Project List."

Mr. Clement also told the committee the municipalities sent the projects to his constituency office where they were passed on to Infrastructure Canada without review or analysis.

"They delivered those prioritized projects to the constituency office, who then, in turn, without additional review or alteration, transmitted them, ultimately, to the Department of Transport and Infrastructure Canada, where the minister responsible would make the decision" he testified.

But Mr. Angus said the documents show that is false.

Letters of rejection sent by Mr. Clement's ministerial office to the chief operating officer of the Township of Muskoka Lakes say "the Minister's staff and department officials have reviewed all proposals received" and "competing priorities restrict our ability to fund all of these local G8 initiatives."

The proposals for projects from the local municipalities who wanted a share of the G8 legacy fund were submitted on hand-made forms created by the local mayors, rather than official federal application documents. When Mr. Clement was asked at the committee if he would provide those forms to the committee, he replied: "Sure."

That response is recorded on tape and also in the initial transcript of the proceedings. But it was removed from the official Hansard, which was released a day or two later. The Hansard can be altered only by the MP, or the staff of the MP, who is speaking.

In watching the recording of he committee meeting, it is somewhat unclear whether Mr. Clement was saying "sure" in response to the question he had just been asked, or if he was saying "sure" to indicate that he understood the question.

"Who changed the Hansard record? Why is it that Mr. Clement gave a clear statement, at committee, that he would provide documents, on record?" Mr. Angus asked. "Who then went behind, after the fact, and had those words removed?"

Questions to Mr. Clement about the new information obtained by the NDP were handed off to the office of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

"As you know, Minister Baird is responsible for this file," Joseph Lavoie, a spokesman for Mr. Baird, said in an e-mail.

Mr. Lavoie pointed out that the RCMP announced Tuesday night they would not investigate allegations that Mr. Clement misappropriated funds related to the G8 money spent in his riding.

"The RCMP completed their review of the facts and determined there was no evidence to support the opposition allegations," he said.

"It is clear that the NDP responded by rolling out a hasty press conference based on out-of context emails and conspiracy theories. Ministers responded to all the committee's questions on this issue and addressed these allegations."

With respect to the decision by the New Democrats to point out that the Hansard had been altered, Mr. Lavoie said: "The NDP today has broken normal parliamentary practices and potentially committed a prima facie breach of privilege with their misleading accusations."

The testimony before the public accounts committee followed many weeks of opposition questions in the House of Commons about the G8 spending in Muskoka – all of which were answered by ministers other than Mr. Clement.

In the end, however, there is little that the New Democrats can do as the opposition in a majority government, to hold ministers to account. Mr. Angus said the issue is in hands of the Prime Minister.

"Mr. Clement has become toxic deadweight to this government. He has burnt his bridges of credibility. He has misrepresented the facts. He can't even stand up in the House and answer a question because he knows it puts him deeper into the doo doo," the NDP MP told reporters. "The question is about Stephen Harper's government. Is this the new norm, that ministers can come to committee and misrepresent facts?"