MLA who heads panel that ousted auditor general was cited in audit

The Liberal chairman of the committee that quashed auditor general John Doyle's bid for a second term was cited by Doyle's office three months ago for spending and conflict concerns.

Liberal Eric Foster, who represents Vernon-Monashee, was the only MLA singled out in an audit from Doyle's office delivered to the legislature on Oct. 5, 2012.

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After it was delivered, Foster continued to chair the committee that decided Doyle's fate - though Foster said he was unaware of some of the criticisms against him at the time.

The committee ultimately refused to grant Doyle a second term.

Concerns about Foster were raised in the audit, which was obtained by the Times Colonist. In it, the auditor general highlighted sloppy accounting policies at the legislature with respect to MLA expenses.

Auditors in Doyle's office questioned a $78,000 bill for renovations at Foster's constituency office in 2009. It was "paid without an appropriate level of review for reasonableness and without adequate supporting documentation," said a letter from the auditor general's office.

Foster's staff provided only a spreadsheet showing $67,000 in work, without invoices or details, auditors noted. "That has never been raised with me," Foster said in an interview. "I've never seen that."

Had he known at the time, Foster said, he's not sure if he would have remained chairman of the committee overseeing Doyle's contract.

"That's a tough question - I don't know the answer to that," he said. "That's kind of a speculation thing."

Doyle's audit also recommended that Foster consult with conflict-of-interest commissioner Paul Fraser because the family of Foster's constituency assistant owned the building space being leased and renovated.

Foster said he sought Fraser's opinion last March. In June, Fraser cleared him of any conflict, according to a letter obtained by the Times Colonist.

The issue resurfaced in October, and Foster said he re-sent the conflict commissioner's letter to legislative staff. "I went to the conflict commissioner, gave him all the documentation related to the lease of the facility and he has, in his letter, said ... no reasonable person would make any assumption of conflict here."

Foster said he didn't see the conflict issue as a reason to recuse himself from the auditor general selection committee.

"I didn't do anything wrong," he said. "I have no axe to grind one way or another. [Doyle] was doing his job."

Despite Doyle's concerns, Speaker Bill Barisoff overrode the legislature's spending rules and authorized a $67,000 payment to Foster for constituency-office renovations, according to the auditor general's office.

"As a result of this decision to override existing policy and allow an inappropriate transaction, the Legislative Assembly has in effect provided the member with a loan and is exposed to the risk of loss should the member leave office before the amount is recovered," the auditor general's letter said.

The auditor general suggested an investigation be done to see whether the Financial Administration Act had been breached.

Barisoff could not be reached for comment.

Opposition NDP caucus chairman Shane Simpson said the Foster controversy reinforces questions about why the committee chose not to renew Doyle's contract.

"What it does raise, though, is the question obviously of whether this created a difficulty around [Foster's] ability to kind of look at this in an even-handed way as the chair, and whether the more prudent thing to do would have been to recuse himself from the committee because of that," Simpson said.

The NDP has called on the committee to reverse its decision and extend Doyle's contract.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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