The Opposition Conservatives are calling for a public inquiry to examine whether Premier Shawn Graham or any senior government official exerted political influence over NB Power to approve a wind-power project.
The controversy erupted when court documents surfaced with Toronto-based SkyPower Corp. and Miramichi-based Atcon Construction. The documents claim senior government officials assured them they would receive a wind-power contract, which would include a tower manufacturing plant creating 200 jobs.
“Let’s have a public inquiry and then the decision will be made which heads should roll, whether that be at the government level or would that be at NB Power, I don’t know,” Opposition leader Jeannot Volpe said Wednesday.
“But something here doesn’t smell good.”
When Volpe was finance minister – and Graham and the Opposition Liberals were calling for a public inquiry into the $2.2-billion Orimulsion fuel fiasco – the powerful Conservative minister said twice that heads should roll at NB Power for bungling the fuel deal.
David Hay, the utility’s president and chief executive officer, said in an interview Tuesday that he met with senior officials over the proposed wind project, but he rejected any insinuation that the Liberals pressured him to get around the rules.
An affidavit Hay filed in response to the lawsuit confirms he had a meeting with Graham, Bernard Theriault, the premier’s chief of staff, Energy Minister Jack Keir and Claire LePage, deputy minister of energy, around Jan. 16, 2007.
“It was suggested to me at this meeting that (NB Power) could consider the purchase of additional wind energy without embarking on a public tendering process, to which suggestion I responded that such a decision would require (NB Power) board approval,” Hay states.
The NB Power board of directors unanimously voted at its Feb. 7, 2007, meeting that any wind-power investments would be carried out through an open tendering process.
The utility announced May 17, 2007, that its next round of wind projects would consider local economic development in the tendering process.
No court dates have been set to hear the case and none of the statements in any of the affidavits have been proven.
Energy Minister Jack Keir seems to have contradicted Hay’s version of events filed in the affidavit when he told reporters that the Liberals never attempted to sidestep the public tendering process when it comes to wind-power projects.
“I can tell you we have never done that. I am not going to comment specifically to the lawsuit, but I can tell you in a general nature we have never requested or asked David Hay or anybody at NB Power to go forward in that manner,” Hay said.
The Liberal government will not call a public inquiry into the allegations because the energy minister said he has never tried to force Hay into any decisions.
When Hay disagrees with a suggestion floated by the minister, Keir said the NB Power chief executive is not afraid to raise his concerns.
“And we sit down and we talk about it. And at the end of the day if we both agree that it is not right for New Brunswick or New Brunswick ratepayers, we wouldn’t bloody well do it,” Keir said.
Christian Rouillard, the Canada research chair in governance and public management at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies, said politicians are too quick to demand a full-fledged inquiry.
Rouillard said the public interest would be served if there was an outside expert brought in to review the situation and issue a public report.
“We are asking for public inquiries for any reason right now and based on recent experience, public inquiries tend to translate into a media circus,” Rouillard said.
“I think definitely the citizens of New Brunswick need to be told the truth, need to know exactly what happened, but I’m not sure that we would need a public inquiry to do that.”
Another public administration specialist said the process worked “quite nicely” because the government brought an issue to NB Power, the management and board made a decision and a different course was taken without any public money spent.
Donald Savoie, the Canada research chair in public administration and governance, said politicians always work with a sense of urgency when it comes to job creation. Meanwhile it’s up to public servants, such as Hay, to take a step back and offer advice, said Savoie.
“I think David Hay acted quite properly in looking at the interests of NB Power. It is his job and it appears that is what he did,” Savoie said, who served on Graham’s transition team.
“I think the government of New Brunswick acted quite properly to turn to whatever lever it could use, including a Crown corporation, to find a way to create jobs in New Brunswick … I think all parties acted in a way good public administration should be done. One protected interests of NB Power and the other tried to promote the economic interests of the province.”
Volpe is claiming the Electricity Act, which he was responsible for implementing in 2003, states that power projects must be put to tender. The act, however, states that tendering is required only when NB Power doesn’t have enough generation capacity to meet its long-term obligations.
Sgt. Derek Strong, a spokesman for RCMP’s J Division, said he doesn’t see a role for the RCMP at this stage.
“In order for the RCMP to investigate, we need an allegation of criminal conduct,” Strong said. “Rules of procedure do not qualify, however, if an allegation of some criminal act were made then we would be duty bound to investigate.”
By Daniel McHardie
Canadaeast News Service
24 January 2008
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