Liberals will block PC motion to question officials about property tax scandal
Opposition leader Blaine Higgs says contradictory statements by premier's chief of staff need to be resolved
The Liberal government will block an attempt by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives to haul five senior officials before a legislative hearing for questioning about the property assessment fiasco.
Serge Rousselle, the minister responsible for Service New Brunswick, said Tuesday that the Liberals will use their majority to vote down the motion by PC Leader Blaine Higgs.
Higgs is asking the legislature to vote to summon Premier Brian Gallant's chief of staff, Jordan O'Brien, and four current or former Service New Brunswick officials to testify.
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Higgs said Gallant's account of the fast-tracking of a botched new assessment system is contradicted by statements O'Brien made to media outlets earlier this year.
"They both can't be right," Higgs told reporters. "So that leads you to, 'Why wouldn't that be an easy thing to resolve?' … If we wanted to get to the bottom of it, this would do it."
Report covered all bases
But Rousselle responded that Auditor-General Kim MacPherson had covered all the bases when she presented her audit to two legislative committees on Nov. 23.
"The report is very clear," he said Tuesday. "The opposition is not happy with her report so now they're questioning her work."
MacPherson said in her Nov. 23 report that based on interviews with Gallant, O'Brien and others, she concluded a key conversation the two men had in May 2016 "wasn't to do with fast track."
She said after releasing the report that she felt she had uncovered all that she could and there were no unresolved questions.
Gallant attended a presentation on May 6, 2016, where Service New Brunswick staff demonstrated parts of the new system.
O'Brien told CBC News in April 2017 that Gallant had been aware from the presentation that Service New Brunswick "had an option to accelerate" the new system and "had been discussing moving it more quickly."
He made similar comments to the Telegraph-Journal newspaper.
MacPherson told reporters after presenting her audit that her office doesn't rely on media reports during their investigations.
Testifying requires full vote
Responsibility for the decision to fast-track the new system is key to the assessment issue because it spawned further problems, including the creation of fictitious home renovations to justify assessment spikes created by flaws in the new model.
Higgs's motion is to call O'Brien, former Service New Brunswick CEO Gordon Gilman, then-vice-president and current CEO Alan Roy, and two other officials before a joint hearing of the public accounts and Crown corporation committees.
Forcing someone to testify at a committee hearing requires a vote of the full legislature.
Green Party leader David Coon said Tuesday he'd support the PC motion.
"There certainly are questions about why no one in any position of responsibility at the staff level or the board level pulled the brakes on the runaway train for fast-track," he said.
But Rousselle said the Liberals would use their majority to vote it down because the debate has already been settled.
He said MacPherson's conclusion, based on her conversation with Service New Brunswick officials, was that Gallant was not told about fast-tracking at the May 6, 2016, presentation.
"The opposition is trying to confuse people here," Rousselle said. "The work has been done by an independent agent of the [legislature]. She did a full report. There's no outstanding issues. She was very clear about that."
Rousselle said MacPherson could have used inquiry powers to subpoena witnesses in her audit but she chose not to. MacPherson told the committee Nov. 23 that if it called O'Brien as a witness, asking him to explain his April 2017 account to the media "would be fair questions."
Gallant's office insisted again Tuesday he didn't know about the accelerating of the program in 2016.
"It is impossible for the premier to have come back and talked about 'Fast Track' because the Auditor General confirmed in interviews with the SNB staff present that this did not come up in the presentation to the premier," said spokesperson Tina Robichaud.
She said the reference to things moving faster was about Gallant's concern that a new system might lead to assessment increases more frequently than every 10 years, which she said was the norm.