New Brunswick

Opportunities NB boss defends response to Atcon fiasco

The head of Opportunities New Brunswick says he's doing his best to be transparent but privacy laws are preventing him from meeting all of the auditor general's recommendations to avoid another Atcon fiasco.

Stephen Lund blames privacy laws for failure to act on all of auditor-general's recommendations

Opportunities New Brunswick CEO Stephen Lund (on right) and chief financial officer Paul Fudge spoke to reporters in Fredericton about the auditor general's report on Atcon Tuesday afternoon. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The head of Opportunities New Brunswick says he's doing his best to be transparent but privacy laws are preventing him from meeting all of the auditor general's recommendations to avoid another Atcon fiasco.

Stephen Lund also says the systems in place at the relatively new Crown corporation would have prevented the fiasco from happening in the first place.

"I believe if ONB had been in place back in 2009, we wouldn't have had an Atcon," Lund told reporters. "We have the ability to say, 'No.'"

Lund was responding to calls from Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs that he be fired by Premier Brian Gallant for telling the legislature most of the recommendations were in place.​

Lund was hired as the first CEO of Opportunities New Brunswick, which the Liberals created after they took office in 2014.

In 2015, Auditor General Kim MacPherson issued 19 recommendations that she said would help avoid another case like Atcon.

In 2009, the then-Liberal government of Shawn Graham overruled the advice of civil servants and approved $50 million in loan guarantees to save the Miramichi company, which was sinking in debt.

With an earlier $13.3 million in loan guarantees, the total assistance came to $63.4 million. Taxpayers lost all but $2.8 million after Atcon went bankrupt the following year.

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs called for Premier Brian Gallant to fire ONB CEO Stephen Lund Tuesday for what he contends amounted to lying to the legislature about the Atcon recommendations. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

MacPherson's 2015 recommendations included a more rigorous application process for government funding, a clear assessment of risks and rewards by the province, and a valuation of a company's assets.

Opportunities New Brunswick has said that it put in place 15 of MacPherson's 19 recommendations. But MacPherson said Tuesday only four of 19 were in place.

What I said is the policies were in place. … We are now in the process of implementing all of these policies.- Stephen Lund, ONB

"We find it unfortunate that after all this time, these recommendations — it appears there [is] very little effort to implement them," she said.

Another of her recommendations was that Opportunities New Brunswick report not just on how many jobs were expected from its subsidies to businesses, but how many are actually created.

"It's not enough to say, 'Expected jobs,'" MacPherson said Tuesday. "What about 'actual jobs?'"

At a legislature committee hearing last year, Lund refused to tell MLAs how many jobs had been created at several individual companies the corporation had subsidized.

Will provide aggregate job numbers

He said Tuesday that privacy laws made it difficult to provide numbers for individual firms, but that corporation would start providing aggregate numbers of actual jobs created.

He also said he was looking at requiring companies to waive their privacy protection as a condition of receiving money.

Higgs told reporters Tuesday that Lund's claims of having put in place 15 of 19 recommendations amounted to lying to the legislature.

"You look under the hood and you find that number is more like four and they're not being followed at all," Higgs said. "That's the sad part.

"Stephen Lund should take accountability for this, the premier should take accountability for this, and Stephen Lund should lose his job over this. He should be fired."

Lund said he wouldn't comment on that, calling it "politics."

Unimplemented recommendations minor

Auditor General Kim MacPherson's report found Atcon was poorly managed and used questionable accounting when the former Shawn Graham government gave the company $63.4 million in loan guarantees. (Maria Burgos/CBC)
He acknowledged that his definition of putting MacPherson's recommendations in place wasn't the same as the auditor general's.

"What I said is the policies were in place," he said. "We are now in the process of implementing all of these policies."

Paul Fudge, the chief financial officer for Opportunities New Brunswick, said other cases of what MacPherson considered non-implementation were minor.

"In a lot of the cases where we were offside, one of five, or one of two, files were missing a piece of paperwork. The wrong form was used, it wasn't signed, or it wasn't in the file when she asked for it."

Lund said the Crown corporation was committed to transparency and understood the importance of making sure tax dollars are spent wisely.

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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