Finance Minister Roger Melanson said Thursday that the CEO appointed to the soon-to-be created Opportunities New Brunswick agency is meeting with the auditor general to see what should be done to better protect the public purse.
“We are very much open to implementing what can be implemented following these conversations in improving the legislation that’s in place,” Melanson told reporters. “We want to do anything we can in a very responsible way to make sure situations, like this one in particular and others in the past from other governments, are corrected.”
The bill enacting the new Opportunities New Brunswick Crown corporation is up for royal assent next week. Led by CEO Stephen Lund, the organization will replace Invest NB and provide private industry the financial incentives to grow and create jobs.
Reporters questioned whether the bill will change since it passed third and final reading before the auditor general released a withering report this week on Atcon, the private construction firm in Miramichi that cost taxpayers tens of millions.
“That is true, but we can also come back and do amendments,” Melanson said. “We’re waiting to see what comes out of the discussions with the CEO of Opportunities New Brunswick and auditor general. The discussions are ongoing, and I can’t give you specific timelines. But I can assure you that all efforts are being taken to address this situation, so we put all the right checks and balances to prevent this from happening again.”
For the first time on Thursday, the leader of the third party in the legislature, David Coon, joined the Tories in calling for the resignation of Victor Boudreau, the minister of health and Liberal point man on the government’s strategic program review.
Coon has been relatively quiet about the Atcon affair, but his words on Thursday caught the attention of reporters. In the House, he doesn’t make partisan shots at political opponents and has not demanded blanket resignations like the Opposition Tories have.
During question period the last couple of days, the Liberals and Tories have been arguing about past boondoggles worth billions committed by both parties when in power, something Coon described as boring.
“The bigger issue here is two-fold,” he said. “The minister appears to have exceeded his authority in terms of removing securities for New Brunswickers, exposing us to $30 million more of risk, which we ended up losing on top of all the other money.”
As the Business New Brunswick minister in the Shawn Graham Liberal government in October 2009, Boudreau amended the security on a $50-million loan guarantee to Atcon that substantially increased the risk to taxpayers’ money.
This happened, with cabinet’s approval, despite a report from senior civil servants that warned, “the province would incur a loss, potentially in the $50 million-$70 million range, if the company were to fail in the next six months.”
It took 10 months, but the Miramichi firm led by Robert Tozer did go bankrupt, and taxpayers recouped less than $400,000 on more than $70 million in losses.
Graham, who would eventually resign his seat over the scandal in 2013, has always maintained the Liberals were trying to save badly needed private industry jobs during an economic downturn.
Auditor general Kim MacPherson said the Business New Brunswick minister acted outside the regulations, but the executive council’s office disagrees. Coon said it is time for a more thorough legal investigation led by the attorney general’s office.
“Were laws and regulations broken under the Economic Development Act? There needs to be a legal investigation,” Coon said. “In the meantime, with that legal investigation underway, the appropriate thing would be for the minister of health to step aside and for the premier to appoint an acting minister while the investigation is taking place.”
Boudreau declined to be interviewed by reporters on Thursday on the matter, as he has all week.
Premier Brian Gallant, who was not an MLA at the time of the Atcon matter, has dismissed calls for the resignation of Boudreau and five others who made the big decisions on Atcon more than five years ago and are still in cabinet.
He says there have been two elections since the fiasco became public, and nothing new has been reported by the auditor general.
Melanson also dismissed Coon’s call for the attorney general to investigate, arguing there had already been exhaustive investigations by the conflict of interest commissioner and the attorney general.
Debate in the house was raucous on Thursday, with Speaker Chris Collins repeatedly warning the Progressive Conservative Opposition not to use unparliamentary language.
For instance, he scolded Kings Centre MLA Bill Oliver for denigrating the cabinet ministers in question.
“They say one bad apple can spoil a whole barrel,” Oliver said. “The premier has chosen six rotten apples to put in a barrel that only holds 13.”
Opposition Tory leader Bruce Fitch once again called for the resignation of Boudreau, both in the House and outside to reporters.
“Premier Gallant has aligned himself directly with the Atcon six. He won’t ask Boudreau to resign, even given the fact the auditor general report proved he was acting outside the regulations.”
Fitch supported Coon’s call for a legal investigation. He also wants a forensic audit and for the six cabinet ministers to resign.
JOHN CHILIBECK Legislature Bureau
- Leader’s Blog March 26, 2015
- N.B. Green Party calls for investigation into Atcon scandal (CTV Andy Campbell March 26,2015)
- Member’s Statement: Failure: Financial Assistance to Business
- Member’s Statements: ATCON- Job Creation?
- CBC Political Panel – Atcon – Friday, March 27, 2015
- (Français) Atcon : (Radio-Canada Édition Acadie 26 mars, 2015)