Les Leyne: It's important to stay clean when you turf an auditor general

Ousting a special officer of the legislature from his post can turn into a dirty business. So it’s best to have clean hands when you start the job.

There are new questions about whether the B.C. Liberal caucus qualified on that score when it came to picking the MLAs who would decide auditor general John Doyle’s fate.

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Liberal MLA Eric Foster, the chairman of the all-party committee that decided against re-appointing Doyle, was cited in a confidential management letter from the auditor general’s office last year over inadequate documentation for a $67,000 renovation of his constituency office. But he continued to sit on and chair the committee that decided Doyle should be denied a second term.

That looks, feels and smells wrong.

But Foster has a surprising response to that concern. He denied Tuesday ever seeing the letter, or knowing anything about the adverse comments about lack of spending documentation.

He confirmed that the auditor general’s office raised a conflict-of-interest concern with him last year. It was about the landlord being related by marriage to his office staff member.

Foster took that concern to the conflict-of-interest commissioner in March and was cleared of any impropriety in June.

But he denied knowing anything about the other concerns mentioned in a management letter that was obtained by the Times Colonist.

It was part of the acrimonious audit of the legislature and MLA spending that Doyle spent several years conducting and released last summer.

It found the legislature’s budget to be a shambles, when it came to validating expenses. Following up on some of the issues, the auditor general’s office specifically cited Foster’s office, the only MLA identified.

The confidential report said: “For example, a leasehold improvement expense was paid without an appropriate level of review for reasonableness and without adequate supporting documentation.

“The member for Vernon-Monashee initially requested payment of approximately $78,000 worth of landlord-performed leasehold improvement costs. The only supporting documentation provided by the member’s staff was a spreadsheet list totalling approximately $67,000.

“Even though no other supporting invoices or details were provided to confirm the appropriateness or accuracy of this amount, the landlord was reimbursed $67,000.”

The report also said the payment contravened policy about renovations in rented offices. They are supposed to be covered only if specified in the lease, and advance payments are not to be made to landlords.

“Despite the clear guidance in this policy, we were informed by the legislative comptroller that the Speaker instructed payment to be made. The member’s monthly constituency office allowance was then reduced over the term in office to recover the tenant improvement costs.”

Foster can’t be faulted for how he handled the conflict-of-interest concern. He handed over all the documents to conflict-of-interest commissioner Paul Fraser and was cleared.

But it’s remarkable to find that he was apparently unaware that the auditor general’s office had expressed concerns about how a substantial bill from his office was submitted without proper documentation. Particularly when he was chairing the committee deciding whether Doyle should carry on for another term.

He chaired in camera meetings in August, October, November and December in which Liberal and NDP MLAs deliberated on Doyle’s future.

And it appears the legislature and the auditor general went back and forth about the documentation concerns several times, and the letter circulated through legislative and B.C. Liberal caucus channels without Foster being made aware of it.

It’s remarkable for another reason. Foster is also a member of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee. It’s an all-party committee, chaired by Speaker Bill Barisoff, that oversees the legislature budget.

It is the body that would receive such a management letter. But it has only met twice — August and October — in the last several months. Foster was named to it in September, and did not attend the October meeting.

If he had known the auditor general had raised specific concerns about his own office, his position on the committee deciding Doyle’s fate is problematic. Ignorance of that fact may excuse Foster from some of the questions. But it doesn’t excuse the B.C. Liberals from lingering suspicions about who decided to oust Doyle, and why.

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