New Brunswick·Analysis

Not on our watch: CEO Stephen Lund assures another Atcon fiasco will not happen

If being called a liar upsets Stephen Lund, he does a fair job of concealing it. But it's clear the accusation rankles.

'We don't do political deals,' says head of Opportunities New Brunswick

Chief financial officer Paul Fudge (left) and chief executive officer Stephen Lund spoke to reporters in Fredericton about the auditor general's report on Atcon after it was released. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

If being called a liar upsets Stephen Lund, he does a fair job of concealing it. But it's clear the accusation rankles.

The CEO of Opportunities New Brunswick was accused this week by opposition leader Blaine Higgs of effectively lying to the legislature about how many of the auditor general's recommendations his Crown agency had implemented. 

ONB claimed 15 of 19 recommendations were in place. 

The AG, Kim MacPherson, this week said it was more like four of 19 and chided ONB for mincing words. 

"In progress to me doesn't mean implemented," she said in a CBC interview.

So how does Lund feel about Higgs' accusation? In a tight-lipped, well-rehearsed response, the province's chief jobs-whisperer sidesteps the political quagmire as adroitly as he can.

"Mr. Higgs is a politician. I'm the CEO of opportunities New Brunswick. We're an arm's-length organization, I report directly to a board of directors and we don't get involved in politics."

Numbers misunderstood

The exasperation in Lund's voice is evident. He's frustrated by any suggestion his agency is falling short of accepted practice and that its success at corralling jobs for the province is being overshadowed by a paper chase. The conflict over numbers, says Lund, is a simple misunderstanding.

"The auditor general looked at  a number of older files and they found discrepancies in the paper work that we have and the documentation. She was not questioning our credit decisions. She was not questioning the policies that we have in place. She wants to get to 100 per cent accuracy, 100 per cent of the time on everything. We have the same goal.  We're all trying to get to the same place."

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. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

That place is one where the money taxpayers give to companies to subsidize jobs in the province correlates with actual, real numbers of jobs created at a given point in time. It's a simple equation, but not one Lund is willing to complete, citing privacy restrictions for the companies involved.  

"We're trying to be as transparent as we can. We're making changes all the time. One of the things that (Auditor General MacPherson) did say was, from a jobs perspective we want to see more accuracy around what a company says in terms of committed jobs and what the actual jobs are. And we've committed to doing that in our next annual report.

"What we're not saying is specific numbers at a specific time. We're working on getting there. Again, these are issues that we're working on with our attorney general."

Concerns after Atcon

The concern on the auditor general's part hearkens back to the Atcon fiasco. Her recommendations for Opportunities NB were meant to ensure the jobs agency created by the Gallant government didn't fall victim to the same political influences that allowed $63 million of taxpayer money to be flushed away in spite of warnings from senior bureaucrats that Atcon was in trouble.  

What's to prevent the same thing from happening at Opportunities New Brunswick?

Auditor General Kim MacPherson said ONB had not implemented 15 of the 19 recommendations she had made but only four of the 19. (Maria Burgos/CBC)

"It would not happen on our watch at ONB," said Lund.

But surely if the premier called and ordered a deal to be approved, what option would Lund have?

"We were set up as an arm's-length organization. We don't do political deals. We have a private sector board of directors. We have many levels of approval and any level can say no to a deal. So if there's a deal that comes through our organization, if it does not make business sense, it will not get past ONB."

In the meantime, Lund said, his team is luring jobs and getting value for taxpayer's dollars.

"Any deal that involves a payroll rebate, we're getting an immediate return to the taxpayer. We're creating jobs, we're working hard to drive this economy forward."

About the Author

Harry Forestell

Host CBC News New Brunswick at 6

Harry Forestell is the host of CBC News New Brunswick at 6. He worked in London as journalist from 1995 to 2000 and from 2005 to 2008 as CBC's European correspondent for Newsworld.