Acting auditor general draws fire from NDP

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      New Democrat MLA Rob Fleming says he plans to introduce a private member’s bill this spring aimed at restoring credibility to the government’s top financial watchdog, the office of the auditor general.

      Though he declined to specify the contents of the bill before it is introduced in the house, Fleming said there are obvious problems with the present Auditor General Act, which allowed the Liberals to appoint Arn van Iersel acting auditor general last May over NDP objections.

      “In my opinion, it is a flaw in the legislation that allowed the [acting auditor general] appointment to be made in this manner,” Fleming told the Straight. “The fact that there is no time limit for the acting auditor general is also a flaw. These are things that can be corrected.”

      New Democrats continue to raise questions about van Iersel’s role as acting auditor general after his office released two reports last week that were signed by deputy auditor general Errol Price rather than by van Iersel himself. The reports did not indicate why Price signed them. Van Iersel, the province’s former comptroller general, did not return a phone call by the Straight’s deadline.

      However, one of the reports was an audit of the government’s corporate accounting system, for which the comptroller general’s office holds overall responsibility. The other report was on BC Ferries.

      The standard method of appointing an auditor general is for a legislature committee to unanimously recommend a candidate, who is then approved by the legislature. But last spring’s search ended in a stalemate amongst members of the public accounts committee, which Fleming chairs.

      The Liberals backed van Iersel. Though van Iersel is well-respected personally and professionally, New Democrats believed he was too close to the government, having served as its chief accountant.

      However, taking advantage of what New Democrats call a “loophole” in the legislation, Liberal committee members instead appointed van Iersel acting auditor general, for which only a simple majority of the committee was needed. Because the Liberals dominate the committee, they got their way.

      Before 2003, that action would have posed no more than a temporary annoyance for the NDP because under previous legislation, an acting auditor general appointed—as was van Iersel—when the house was not in session would have held the position only temporarily. He or she could serve only until the 20th sitting day of the next session of the house. By that time, the committee would be required to come up with a unanimous recommendation.

      However, the new Auditor General Act, which took effect in April 2003, removed the restriction on the term of an acting auditor general.

      As an indication of what they said were problems created by van Iersel’s previous government work, New Democrats seized on the fact that he was unable to sign off on the government’s public accounts last year. The reason is that van Iersel was involved in the preparation of those accounts. Instead, Price signed the 2005–06 public accounts.

      On December 8, van Iersel told the public-accounts committee that he expected to recuse himself less frequently in the future.

      Fleming later told the Straight that numerous government financial statements are missing van Iersel’s signature, presumably for fear of compromising his office’s independence.

      “The public-accounts committee has learned that there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of financial statements”¦that have not had his signature that otherwise would have,” the MLA said. “At the time this appointment was made, these things were pointed out. What we’re looking for clarification on is when that might reasonably expire.”

      The main issue, Fleming added, is that B.C. does not now have a permanent auditor general in place.

      “This is an incredibly important office for the credibility of our democracy, and for the credibility of any department of government and of the government as a whole,” he said.

      At the December 8 meeting, NDP Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA Diane Thorne gave notice of a motion to establish a subcommittee to select a permanent auditor general. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for February 2, 2007.

      Fleming told the Straight that another search might bring forward new candidates. However, even if that doesn’t happen, where there are many suitable choices compromises can be reached, he said.

      “It would say something about us, rather than about the process itself, if we were to not succeed in this regard,” Fleming said.