Most Atcon recommendations from AG in place for provincial money

The CEO of Opportunities New Brunswick says most of the so-called Atcon recommendations are in place, or will be soon, at the job-creation agency, to protect taxpayer's investments in companies.

Rules in place to protect taxpayers after multi-million-dollar default

Recommendations came from an Auditor-General's report on Atcon fiasco (CBC)

The chief executive officer of Opportunities New Brunswick says most of the so-called Atcon recommendations are in place, or will be soon, at the job-creation agency.

Stephen Lund says it has taken more than the six months he promised to implement some of the ideas from the auditor general, but says by next spring they'll be providing an extra layer of protection for taxpayers.

Those include requiring that:

  • Companies looking for money will have to provide more documentation of their financial status, and Opportunities New Brunswick will investigate whether it's valid.

  • Any change to the province's security — its ability to recoup losses from the company's assets — must be approved by the full cabinet, not just the minister responsible.

  • Any memo to cabinet about a company that has previously defaulted on government help has to point out that default.

In March, Auditor-General Kim MacPherson released a scathing audit of the previous Liberal government's decision to give the Atcon Group around $70 million dollars in loan guarantees in 2009-10.

Liberal politicians approved the money despite warnings from the civil service that Atcon was on the brink of collapse and that the province had given up its security, the right to seize assets and sell them to recoup taxpayer losses.

Stephen Lund is CEO of Opportunities New Brunswick (Twitter)

They justified the decision by citing Atcon's role in providing jobs in Miramichi, which had already been hit by job losses at other companies.

Lund said if asked by elected politicians to bend the rules to bail out a faltering company, he'll fall back on what his agency's review discovered.

"I'm not a political person, first of all," he said.

"I have a job to do and I'll do the best job I can. That's why I put the best team together. There may be situations, I certainly recognize that, where there could be a company struggling in different parts of the province. That's not my decision."

"My job is to look at a deal and make sure it makes sense."

Disregard for taxpayer's money

In March, MacPherson called the 2009 Liberal decision on Atcon a sign of "very troubling disregard for taxpayers' money … We could not get to the point that any of this could be considered reasonable in the circumstances."

Atcon declared bankruptcy in 2010, and the province has recouped only a tiny fraction of the money it lost.

The current Liberal government of Brian Gallant, which includes six cabinet ministers who helped approve the Atcon money, has refused to apologize for the fiasco.

But Gallant has said the new structure of the Opportunities New Brunswick, combined with MacPherson's recommendations, will help avoid a repeat.

But ONB has not adopted all of MacPherson's ideas.

Earlier this year, Lund rejected her suggestion of a "do-not-lend" list that would prevent money going to companies that had already failed.

He said that would discourage, for example, tech entrepreneurs who might launch several small start-ups.

Auditor-General Kim MacPherson (CBC)

MacPherson also recommended that there be a cap on the amount of money any one company can receive from the province.

Loan cap not hard and fast rule

Opportunities New Brunswick will only provide funding up to $2 million for any one company. But it's not a hard cap: amounts above that can be sent up the line for approval.

There's "a very long process in place" for ONB to approve funding, Lund says, usually in payroll rebates. It includes looking at a company's management, financial statements, and business plan.

The first step sees the application go to an account manager, then on to his or her manager, and then to an internal investment committee.

The second step is approval from the CEO and the third step is the board's executive committee or the full board itself.

If the amount is less than $2 million, the board's decision is final, with no government involvement. If the amount is more than $2 million, it goes to a fourth step: Premier Brian Gallant's Jobs Board, and then the cabinet -- but only if it has passed the first three steps.

"If we say yes, the recommendation goes further," Lund said. "If we say no, it doesn't."

Still, Lund acknowledges there are other sources of government funds that companies can approach, bypassing Opportunities New Brunswick.

"I can't speak to that," he said. "I'm focused on what we're doing at ONB."

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.


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