Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said Wednesday his office was not involved in the awarding of an untendered contract to the public relations firm responsible for promoting Halifax's shipbuilding contract.
Questions about the so-called "Ships Start Here" campaign have swirled this week after the Canadian Taxpayers Federation released documents showing that the provincial government's business development agency hired the company without going to tender.
"Nova Scotia Business Inc. did their own procurement process," Dexter told reporters.
"They are responsible for it and in retrospect I think they made the right call."
He said the campaign was mounted last spring at the behest of the province's business community, which approached both his office and the business agency about the need for a publicity effort.
MT&L Public Relations Ltd. made $303,000 on the $1.4-million campaign, which cost the province a total of $620,000.
Irving, which eventually won Ottawa's $25-billion contract to build combat vessels for the navy, contributed $552,000.
Dexter also criticized the opposition for posing questions about the role of Paul Black, an adviser in his office who formerly worked for the public relations firm.
"Mr. Black had nothing to do with the procurement of that contract and it is just simply a drive-by smearing," said Dexter.
Earlier Wednesday, the legislature's public accounts committee rejected a Conservative motion to have Black appear to explain the contract.
Conservative member Chris d'Entremont brought the motion forward, saying he believed there was something "stinky" in the way the contract was awarded.
He said the government knew about Ottawa's shipbuilding strategy long in advance — the federal government announced the project in June 2010.
"How did it become an emergency all of a sudden?" said d'Entremont.
Approval granted June 30
The documents obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation through access-to-information legislation indicate the company was paid for some of its work as early as last April — well in advance of the required Treasury Board approval for untendered contracts of more than $100,000.
The government has said that approval was granted on June 30.
Dexter said the business agency had the right to proceed in the instance of an exceptional circumstance and he expressed confidence that it would have acted in a "professional manner" in following its guidelines on procurement.
The province has said the procurement process for emergency situations was followed because there was a need to quickly respond to advertising campaigns by competitors for the shipbuilding contract.
Stephen Lund, CEO of Nova Scotia Business Inc., said the Crown agency was pleased with the public relations firm's work, which included a website and lawn signs.
"We made the decision to do this and we stand by it," he said.
Lund also said he saw no issue with awarding the contract to MT&L Public Relations despite the fact that his vice-president, Lisa Bugden, used to work for the marketing company.
"I'd be surprised if there weren't other connections with that firm — this is a small town," he said.
Bugden told reporters she was hired at MT&L Public Relations in 2000 to cover a maternity leave and continued to work for the company after her year-long contract was up.