Nfld. & Labrador

'How deep does this go?' Opposition leaders question latest sole-source Liberal hire

Revelations that the premier's right-hand man is connected to a controversial — and costly — oil and gas consulting contract has opposition members calling out the Ball government.

NDP, PC question revelation that premier's office involved in hiring former government employee for $350K

Newfoundland and Labrador's Opposition leaders weighed in Tuesday on a hefty contract the premier's chief of staff had a hand in awarding to a former Liberal. (CBC)

Revelations that the premier's right-hand man is connected to former deputy minister Gordon McIntosh's controversial — and costly — oil and gas consulting job has opposition members drawing stark parallels to other government-awarded contracts in recent memory.

Taxpayers footed the $350,000 price tag for McIntosh's services in 2018, when government directed a Nalcor subsidiary to ink a contract with McIntosh without looking at competitors.

The hiring prompted fiery debate in the House of Assembly last year, inciting the opposition to ask why McIntosh's job wasn't opened up to a public competition or awarded to a company closer to home.

That was before an access-to-information request by CBC News revealed Premier Dwight Ball's connection to the decision, which followed a meeting between the premier's chief of staff, Greg Mercer; a Nalcor executive; and McIntosh just before he was awarded the contract.

The premier's office said a Nalcor vice-president and the chief of staff "mutually agreed" at the meeting that the consultant was the ideal choice to help transition the new standalone oil and gas corporation. Nalcor then took over negotiations, finalized the contract, and submitted the $350,000 budget request.

The premier's office says McIntosh and Keating then entered into contract discussions that were finalized with Keating and the Nalcor legal team, with no input in those discussions.

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PC Leader Ches Crosbie drew immediate parallels to the Mitchelmore Report on Tuesday morning, invoking the Carla Foote scandal that saw the long-time Liberal staffer handed a top job at The Rooms despite having no qualifications for the role.

"You've got somebody put over onto an agent of government … at a vastly inflated salary, with no competition, and in conflict of interest," Crosbie said.

McIntosh worked alongside Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady in 2016 as her deputy and helped design the province's offshore plan.

His Scotland-based company, Aberdeen International Associations, was awarded the sole source contract with Nalcor to consult on the same plans he developed. Coady defended the contract when it was debated in the legislature last year.

Gordon McIntosh was appointed deputy minister in 2016, owing to plentiful experience developing offshore projects. He is continuing to work on the province's offshore as a contractor. (Facebook)

"Nalcor does budget its own consultation … and this is within that budget," she said at the time.

On Tuesday, Crosbie accused Coady of playing a similar role to Mitchelmore during the Foote fiasco. "She's being a good soldier and covering it up," he said.

NDP Leader Alison Coffin said she also harbours serious misgivings about the hiring patterns emerging from the Liberal government.

"The person who wrote the contract, and made the suggestion that we need to carve off a piece of Nalcor and turn it into OilCo — well, that person was then given the job of making that happen," she said. 

Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady defended the Liberal government's direction to Nalcor to pay out nearly $350,000 to a former deputy minister. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

"There's some serious problems associated with the fact that you get to write your own job description, and then you get appointed to that job without letting anyone else take part in that.

"Makes you wonder what else is happening, doesn't it?"

'Why are they so in love with him?'

Crosbie and Coffin each raised a number of issues with the contract, including the lack of competition, the size of the pay package, and what they say is a conflict of interest.

"How do we know that there weren't Newfoundlanders and Labradorians with equal or better qualifications?" Crosbie asked. "The whole thing is smelly. It smacks of gross mismanagement all over again.

"He may well be a qualified person. But he may be a qualified person in a job that has no reason to exist."

Crosbie also questioned McIntosh's residence in Scotland, asking why he was selected when his firm does business in another country.

Greg Mercer, left, is Premier Dwight Ball's chief of staff. (Twitter)

"What's so all-fired important about this guy? Why are they so in love with him that they're going to create a position for him at double his pay and waive conflict of interest [rules] so he can get the job?" he said.

Coffin agreed with Crosbie's criticisms of the hiring process. "Certainly sounds like he has a great deal of experience and is capable," she said. But without competition from other firms, she asked, "how do people believe that the right persons are being hired for the job?

"That says we're not managing the public purse at a time when fiscal restraint is absolutely paramount."

Coffin said she's worried about the content of the contract, saying it's not possible to determine whether the assignment was necessary without knowing the details. 

"There's a whole lot of unknowns," she said. 

More waivers cause for concern: Coffin

Coffin raised the possibility of further examples of sole-source contracts awarded by the province, disclosing that she's heard of four other conflict-of-interest waivers within government.

"They have been known to give waivers," she said. The fact they exist at all, she added, is enough to raise her suspicions. 

"How deep does this go? How many appointments like this has there been?" 

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