The NDP is accusing Treasury Board President Tony Clement of interfering with a review of G8 legacy fund spending in Huntsville and wants a parliamentary committee to investigate.
In question period Monday afternoon and during a press conference earlier in the day, the NDP continued to push the G8 funding issue and said Clement has run afoul of accountability and transparency rules.
Parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Deepak Obhrai, rejected the accusations.
"Our government is focused on what matters to Canadians, that is jobs and the economy, not muckraking by the opposition," he responded to questions from NDP MPs Thomas Mulcair and Charlie Angus.
"This issue has been thoroughly aired ... nothing more to add," said Obhrai. He repeated the same lines every time the NDP asked a question related to the G8. When a question was directed to Clement by Liberal John McCallum, Obhrai rose and touted his government's actions on crime and the economy.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said questioning the government on G8 spending has become "a joke."
"You're getting answers of a completely robotic, rote nature from the parliamentary secretary who is not in a position to answer ... he wasn't there, he wasn't involved," said Rae after question period. "The only person who can answer these questions is Mr. Clement and he refuses. So there is absolutely no accountability with respect to how the questions are being answered."
A series of emails obtained by the NDP show that Clement, Conservative MP for the Muskoka region where the G8 was held, agreed with the mayor of Huntsville that it was "unacceptable" for payments from Ottawa to the town to be held up by bureaucrats.
The exchanges between Clement and Claude Doughty reveal a friendly relationship and also indicate that the federal government was set to help fund the G8 summit centre in Huntsville out of the G8 Legacy Infrastructure Fund before the fund was announced in February 2009.
The $50-million fund was set up to finance more than 30 projects in Clement's riding north of Toronto and is a source of controversy. Opposition MPs call it a boondoggle and a slush fund meant to help Clement's reputation in the riding.
The federal government provided close to $30 million for the G8 centre project, which expanded an existing community centre, adding an Olympic-sized skating rink and other upgrades. It was originally intended to serve as the media centre during the June 2010 meeting, but media ended up using a larger facility in Toronto where the G20 meeting was held. The summit centre hosted a youth conference instead during the summit of world leaders.
When Doughty was advised in June 2010 by an official in the infrastructure department that cheques from Ottawa were being held up because the assistant deputy minister was reviewing the expense claims and payments could be delayed six to eight weeks, he wrote to Clement.
"This is totally unacceptable. I am sure you agree," he said. Clement wrote back: "I agree. I'm working on it," he said.
"The emails paint a disturbing picture of a minister who seems willing to bend the rules and ignore the basic standards of accountability," Angus said at a news conference in Ottawa on Monday.
"An accountable minister would have reassured the mayor that funding reviews are fundamental to transparent government, but in this case that wasn't Tony Clement's position," he said.
NDP gives emails to RCMP
The NDP wants the House of Commons ethics committee to study how the G8 fund was administered, and Angus said the emails have been forwarded to the RCMP to assist in any investigation they may want to do.
The emails also indicate that Clement and Doughty were talking about federal funding for the community centre early on, months before the G8 fund was announced in February 2009.
The funding was referenced in emails in November 2008, and on Dec.12, Doughty wrote Clement saying that at a planning meeting local officials had heard the media centre wasn't going to be in Huntsville.
"Bullcrap. That's the RCMP's agenda, not ours …don't talk to media until we talk & get our lines converged," Clement responded.
On January 23, 2009, Doughty writes to Clement saying he needed a "solid answer" about a federal contribution to the centre's construction so the town could proceed with its plans and complete the work on time.
"I am optimistic that we will get a go ahead in the budget next Tuesday. If that is the case, we will need some form of firm confirmation to allow the Town of Huntsville to issue the Purchase Order for the steel by Friday January 30th," he wrote.
Clement responds: "Is it possible to go ahead with the steel purchase order without making an official announcement to that effect? Otherwise I will be put in an uncomfortable position."
Clement also wrote to Doughty about an upcoming press conference saying, "If I refer to G8 funding it will be in general terms. I will say 'Now that we have this fund in place we can review all the proposals quickly.' That could allow you to welcome the G8 Fund & look forward to a quick consideration of the Media Centre request. Make sense?"
In July 2009, Doughty fills Clement in on a meeting with Tim Charlebois from the Ontario Provincial Police, who told him costs needed to be approved as a package by Treasury Board, the department Clement now heads, and that approval could take a few months. Doughty says the town is about to start borrowing money to fund operations and capital costs.
"We both know that this has some political dynamite attached to it. Can you give me any guidance as to how we navigate this issue as we have yet to receive anything from Ottawa," the email said.
"Claude: Tim is full of bulloney. He doesn't know what he is talking about. We intend to finalize the contribution agreements this week and the money flows thereafter," he said.
The refurbished building was opened on May 23, 2010.
Doughty emailed Clement that day: "Tony we nailed that one! We ARE a team! Through my darkest hours you were there for me. A great day for Huntsville. A great day for Canada. Legacy rules!"
Clement, who was industry minister at the time, wrote back: "Great work Claude. We've changed our Community for the Ages."
The emails were obtained and made public by the NDP.
In another email, Doughty tells Clement about a local newspaper reporter who knew about a call from Julian Fantino, who was Ontario Provincial Police commissioner at the time and has since been elected a Conservative MP. Doughty tells Clement that he asked the reporter for a positive story and that he "had to give her another story in lieu."
"Thanks Claude. I appreciate your effort. We're in this together. The good news: PMO's fury at OPP is only increasing. We'll get through this together," he writes back.
Angus said it was a concern that the Prime Minister's Office would have any "fury" related to security and the G8.
He said the emails add to the evidence the NDP has been digging up about the fund and how Clement had a direct hand in it rather than it being administered through the proper departments and bureaucrats in Ottawa.
A report from the auditor general's office this spring slammed the government for a lack of transparency surrounding the fund. The report showed that the government diverted $50 million for it from the Border Infrastructure Fund and didn't inform Parliament of the move. When MPs approved spending for the border fund they had no idea millions of dollars from it were actually going to fund the legacy projects in Clement's riding.
Some of the projects funded included upgrading roads and sidewalks, beautification projects, signage and streetscaping. The bulk of the money went to the centre in Huntsville.
Baird's office accuses NDP of 'muckraking'
Interim auditor general John Wiersema also said his office could find no paper trail related to how the legacy projects were chosen. Municipalities applied for funding and 32 out of 242 proposals were selected. No public servants were involved in the decision-making process, the audit found. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who was infrastructure minister at the time and in charge of the fund, chose them based on Clement's advice, he said. Wiersema said it was unusual and concerning that there was no paper trail.
Baird and Clement responded to the auditor general's report saying the border fund was used for expediency so the money could flow more quickly, and they said every penny was accounted for and well-spent. Clement said he consulted with local mayors about the projects and they drew up a list that was given to Baird for him to make the decisions.
Clement's office was asked for a response to the NDP's accusations on Monday and the request was referred to Baird's office.
"This issue has been thoroughly aired," Baird's spokesman, Chris Day, said. "This is the same kind of muckraking that Canadians rejected in the last election."
The auditor general's office said Monday its audit was focused on how the projects were chosen and that it has no plans to reopen the file.
"We believe it is now up to Parliament to consider the findings included in our report and take any actions it considers appropriate," Ghislain Desjardins, media spokesman, said in a statement.
He said the representatives from the office would appear before a parliamentary committee if asked.