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Top board officials 'full of contradictions' <br/>on Rights &amp; Democracy woes Add to ...

The chairman and the vice-chair of Rights & Democracy have provided a parliamentary committee with differing reasons for the "dysfunction" at the troubled arms-length federal agency.

The taxpayer-funded organization, which promotes democratic values overseas, has been embroiled for almost a year in a bitter internal battle between staff, management and Conservative appointees on the board of directors.

Critics claim the brouhaha is a case study in the Harper government's pro-Israel ideology and the manipulation of independent agencies. Defenders of the board say its a matter of bringing accountability and transparency to an organization that's run amok.

Four members of the board appeared at the Commons foreign affairs committee Thursday but did little to clear the air.

"The dysfunction has to do with accounting issues and accountability," board vice-chairman Jacques Gauthier told the committee.

He denied the board had been loaded with Tory appointees with "a mandate to alter the ideology of the organization." He said he has never been contacted by either the Prime Minister's Office or Foreign Affairs to alter an agency project.

"We will fix what's deficient with a very valuable organization," Mr. Gauthier assured the MPs.

But board chairman Aurel Braun, a Gauthier ally, painted a far darker picture. The University of Toronto professor - appointed to lead the board last year - said the agency's staff and management were "seized by a culture of dogmatism."

Braun prefaced his remarks by noting that he was the son of European immigrants who fled Nazism and Communism and that he'd developed an early aversion to ideological extremism.

And while Mr. Braun also alluded to budget accountability at Rights & Democracy, he made it clear ideology was the root problem. He described "a private fiefdom using public money" and flatly asserted that "far too much of it has gone to terrorist front organizations."

Three small grants of $10,000 each to rights-monitoring groups in the Middle East - one Israeli, two Palestinian - have become the lightning rod for the dispute at Rights & Democracy, which has an annual budget of $11 million.

The board members also took issue with agency funds funnelled to programs through the United Nations.

The testimony was often bitter and personal.

Mr. Braun referred to "irresponsible, unsubstantiated allegations directed against us" - after claiming that management at the agency bought off staff with a "rushed collective agreement" to win their support in an open insurrection against the board.

Agency employees have testified they promptly provided details of the grants when asked by the board. Board members maintain the information had to be pried from reluctant staff after much investigation.

The accountability and transparency complaint by the board was called into question by New Democrat MP Paul Dewar. Mr. Dewar got Mr. Gauthier to concede that he recently awarded several untendered contracts worth more than $10,000 to launch various third-party investigations of the agency.

"We've just got a group of people here full of contradictions," Mr. Dewar later complained.

But board member David Matas said the problems are more fundamental. The senior legal counsel to B'nai Brith Canada, and a former Liberal candidate, argued the agency has altered the way it operates.

It was designed, he said, to fund existing democracy projects at arms-length from Ottawa so that the government of the day would not get flak from offended administrations abroad. Mr. Matas says the agency now develops its own programs and then funds foreign groups to implement them.

He asked why any government "should fully fund an institution to hire people off the street to run their own political agenda in the name of human rights" without oversight by a government-appointed board.

Board member Brad Farquhar, a former Conservative party candidate, took particular exception to what he called the characterization of board members as "partisan stooges" and "evil envoys of the Conservative government."

None of the four board members had much to say about an incendiary essay this week penned by a fifth board appointee and published in the National Post newspaper.

Marco Navarro-Genie referred to opposition MPs on the committee as the "coalition-government wannabes" - aping a tired Tory talking point - and claimed "ghoulish" MPs were dragging the widow of a former president to testify.

That widow, Suzanne Trepanier, asked to be permitted to address the committee and was initially blocked by Conservative MPs - a fact that would have been well known to Mr. Navarro-Genie before he published his essay.

Under questioning, Mr. Braun would only say that he "perhaps would not have used the same language," as his board ally.

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