Friday, October 22, 2004

Dubious Projects Funded in Liberal Ridings

'Dubious' projects funded in Liberal ridings, says former ACOA boss
Last Updated Fri, 22 Oct 2004 14:36:50 EDT

FREDERICTON - The former head of the federal economic development agency for the Atlantic provinces says Liberal politicians often pressured him to fund "dubious" projects with public money during the 1990s.
Norman Spector, who served as president of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency during the mid-1990s, points to former ACOA minister David Dingwall as one of the biggest offenders.
Spector's allegations come in an afterword to a new book about Brian Mulroney, who had earlier appointed him as Canada's ambassador to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
In author William Kaplan's A Secret Trial: Brian Mulroney, Stevie Cameron and the Public Trust, Spector says he was offered the job at ACOA in part to "to keep an eye on David Dingwall, whose proclivity for pork-barrelling – though much appreciated by Cape Bretoners – had attracted negative press."
Set up in 1987, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency provides funding to businesses and training ventures across the Atlantic provinces. It has been plagued for years by allegations that its decisions on government loans are influenced by politicians.
Dingwall 'insatiable,' says Spector
Spector describes what happened to a $60-million chunk of ACOA's budget snared by Dingwall, then the health minister, after the Devco coal mine closed in his riding of Cape Breton-East Richmond.
"Because most of the applications flooding in to his political staff contained no analysis and no rationale, he did not want normal program criteria to apply," Spector writes.
"Dingwall was insatiable, and the projects were of increasingly dubious merit. Eventually I suggested that he sign off on the projects. Not surprisingly, he was anxious that public servants take responsibility for 'economic development' projects that included refurbishing the Sydney waterfront, a chair in tourism, a new student residence at the local college, and a variety of forestry projects that ACOA did not fund in any other province."
Dingwall's defeat in the 1997 election ended his 17-year career as a member of Parliament. He is now head of the Royal Canadian Mint.
Earlier this year, his name started coming up in connection with the federal sponsorship scandal. Chuck Guité, the former bureaucrat who ran the program, told a parliamentary committee that Dingwall once congratulated him for keeping a discreet silence on how he used to operate under the Mulroney Tories.
"You won't rat on them, you won't rat on us," said Dingwall, then the public works minister, according to Guité's testimony.
ACOA a popular source of funds
Dingwall wasn't the only Atlantic Liberal who tried to channel ACOA money into Liberal ridings during his presidency, Spector writes.
"I was having difficulty stopping the agency's embarrassing proclivity to lend cash to companies that didn't need it, deserve it, or have the ability to use it profitably ... One MP summoned me to her office and explained that she, not I, should decide who received government money because she had to get re-elected every four years."
Pressure to fund certain projects for political reasons also came from staffers in the office of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Spector said – including Chrétien assistant Dominic LeBlanc, now the MP for the New Brunswick riding of Beauséjour.
LeBlanc, the son of former governor general Roméo Leblanc, didn't respond to a request for an interview.
David Dingwall's former assistant, Warren Kinsella, says it's the job of all MPs to work on behalf of their ridings.
That includes the minister responsible for ACOA, Kinsella says, and Spector should have known that.
"He's an incredibly bright person and a person of great integrity, but if he thought it was so bad, and it was so odious and terrible, why did he stay on the job so long?"
Spector writes that he did eventually leave the civil service because of political interference.
"Faced with a choice of giving in to political pressure or resigning, I advised [then-Clerk of the Privy Council Jocelyne] Bourgon that I would be leaving the public service."