Kim MacPherson vows to investigate Atcon a second time

Auditor General Kim MacPherson is set to begin a second audit into Atcon Holdings Inc. and the provincial government's handling of the file that cost New Brunswick taxpayers $70 million.

Auditor general wants to try and find out where $70M in taxpayers' money went

Auditor General Kim MacPherson released her latest report to the legislature on Tuesday. (CBC)

A defiant auditor general is telling the Gallant Liberals she plans a new audit on the Atcon fiasco, even if they don't give her the funding she needs to pay for it.

Kim MacPherson says the deluge of letters, calls, and emails to her office have convinced her she needs to deal with the unanswered questions left over from her earlier audit of the $70 million affair.

MacPherson said earlier this year she would conduct a full forensic audit of where the money went if the government approved extra funding to pay for additional staff. 

I am not asking permission.- Kim MacPherson, auditor general

Now she says she will do the work even if the Liberals vote down the funding at the legislative administration committee.

"I will be informing LAC, the committee that approves my budget, of my plan to do this work," she said. "I will require staff and funds beyond my current budget … I am not asking permission."

MacPherson made the comments while delivering her audits to a joint meeting of the Crown Corporations and Public Accounts committees at the Legislature.

MacPherson didn't have an estimate of what the audit might cost, but she said a similarly complex special audit of a bailout of the Caisse Populaire de Shippagan cost about $1 million.
Auditor General Kim MacPherson prepared to brief a legislature committee on her annual report that audits various government operations. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"I'm an accountant," she told MLAs. "It goes against my nature to go over budget. I don't want to be in this position, but I'm weighing off that in order to fulfil the mandate to do what is required of me as auditor general, I have to do this work. The bills will get paid."

"I will make it known that I need extra resources and we'll see what happens," she said.

MacPherson says she hopes the new audit could be done within a year.

Government tight-lipped

Finance Minister Roger Melanson wouldn't say whether LAC should approve the extra funding, saying because it's part of the legislature, it is independent from the government. Liberal MLAs hold a majority on the committee.

Melanson said MacPherson's office already has a $2 million budget, "which is quite significant." He also said there have already been two reports on Atcon: MacPherson's first audit, and an investigation by the conflict of interest commissioner that found then-premier Shawn Graham was in a conflict of interest on Atcon.

"There's been a lot of work done on the Atcon file," he said. He added the province has implemented MacPherson's recommendations from her first audit.

MacPherson says she is in the process of getting access to Atcon's books and records from the court-appointed receiver assigned to oversee the company's bankruptcy.

Her first report on Atcon detailed the decision-making process within the Liberal government of Premier Shawn Graham, which approved $50 million in loan guarantees for the Atcon companies in 2009.

The Liberals also guaranteed $13 million for work Atcon was doing on a bridge in the Northwest Territories, money taxpayers had to provide after the company was kicked off the project.

Ministers ignored warnings from the civil service that Atcon was teetering on the brink of collapse, showing "a very troubling disregard for taxpayers' money," MacPherson said earlier this year.

She described how the Graham cabinet gave up the province's security on the loan guarantees, making it harder for taxpayers to get some of the money back during the bankruptcy sale of Atcon assets.

But, MacPherson said at the time she would need a fuller forensic audit to understand what the Atcon group of companies did with the money they borrowed with the help of taxpayers.

"With respect to the unanswered questions, I remain concerned," she said Tuesday.

She also says the Liberals still haven't said why they ignored civil servants who warned against approving the loan guarantee and giving up the province's security.

'Politically motivated'

"I feel there has been opportunity for the government to have responded and they have not," said MacPherson.

Liberal MLAs at the committee hearing appeared nonplussed by MacPherson's comments. Wilfred Roussel asked her whether all the questions had been answered in previous cases of government funding disasters.

MacPherson answered that Atcon was unique because the Legislature had voted unanimously to ask her to investigate the case.

Another Liberal MLA, Hedard Albert, suggested the people who've been demanding another Atcon audit are "politically motivated."

"Some may be," MacPherson said, "But there are many who are just average New Brunswickers who are extremely frustrated that such a thing could happen in New Brunswick, with such a big price tag, and there'd still be unanswered questions."


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