New Brunswick taxpayers picked up a $72,000 bill for legal fees paid to a Fredericton lawyer who represented former premier Shawn Graham in the Atcon investigation launched by the province’s conflict-of-interest commissioner.
Justice Patrick Ryan released his long-awaited report on Monday that ruled Graham was in a conflict of interest over his handling of the Atcon file. In his lengthy report, the conflict-of-interest commissioner recommended that Graham pay a $3,500 fine.
Graham co-operated with Ryan report and said this week he accepted Ryan’s verdict.
Several times in the report, Ryan referred to Allison Whitehead, a Fredericton lawyer, who was representing Graham.
The Department of Justice confirmed the provincial government paid more than $72,000 for Whitehead's expenses.
It is standard practise for the Executive Council Office to pay legal bills for cabinet ministers in these instances, according to the department.
Liberal MLA Victor Boudreau said the provincial government's decision to pay for Graham's lawyer during Ryan's conflict-of-interest investigation should not be viewed as a special benefit.
"Whenever a member of government is named as a party in a judicial or quasi-judicial matter while acting within the purview of their office, the Department of Justice makes an assessment and a decision as to whether it is appropriate to provide legal services or authorize the provision of such services by outside counsel," he said in a statement on Thursday afternoon.
"This is not unique to this particular matter," he said.
Ryan's office also hired an outside lawyer to assist in the Atcon investigation. It is not clear yet how much money the investigation cost the Office of the Conflict of Interest Commissioner.
The independent office is paid out of the legislative assembly's budget.
The Atcon controversy started when the former Liberal government offered the Miramichi-based manufacturing company three loan guarantees worth $50 million.
Civil servants recommended against giving the company the loan guarantees, but the Graham government pushed forward with the bailout against their advice.
Atcon subsequently went bankrupt and taxpayers have recovered a fraction of that investment.
The conflict-of-interest complaint, which was launched in 2010 by PC MLA Claude Williams, revolved around the relationship between Graham and his father, Alan Graham, a former cabinet minister and director with a Swedish subsidiary of Atcon, called Vänerply.
The former premier told Ryan he had assumed his dad no longer had a role with the Atcon subsidiary but the conflict commissioner said Graham should have checked.
Alan Graham told Ryan that he figured his son knew of his ongoing involvement.
Ryan said then-premier Graham should have asked his father about his dealings with Atcon to make sure there was no conflict.