OTTAWA - The Harper government clearly broke the rules when it set up and doled out a $50-million G8 legacy fund, the federal spending watchdog said Wednesday.
Nevertheless, interim auditor general John Wiersema said there's no point in conducting further audits of the controversial fund because there is no paper trail to follow.
He said it's up to Parliament to try to get to the bottom of the fund, which Treasury Board President Tony Clement dispensed on beautification projects in his Parry Sound-Muskoka riding in advance of last year's G8 summit.
"Rules were broken," Wiersema told reporters after testifying before the Commons public accounts committee.
He said the rules require the government to be transparent and accountable in selecting projects for federal funding.
"Clearly, those rules were not followed so rules were broken in this case."
In a report last spring, the auditor general concluded the Harper government kept Parliament in the dark when it diverted $50 million from a border infrastructure fund to create the legacy fund.
It also found there was no documentation explaining how or why 32 beautification projects were ultimately chosen to receive funding. It concluded that public servants were shut out of the selection process that John Baird, then infrastructure minister, approved the projects based strictly on Clement's recommendation.
Since that report was published, the NDP has dredged up municipal records, using provincial freedom of information legislation. Those records show some dozen federal public servants attended community meetings about the legacy fund.
Moreover, they show Clement funnelled funding applications through his constituency office, rather than his ministerial office, and used his personal email account to discuss administration of the fund with municipal officials. Opposition MPs suspect those measures were taken to avoid leaving a paper trail that could be reviewed by the auditor general or accessed through the federal freedom of information law.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus told Wiersema he's concerned about the audit's conclusion that there was no documentation about the selection process when the NDP's research has shown otherwise.
"I share your concern," Wiersema said.
He said his office had asked Clement's office for any documentation from his ministerial or constituency office but was given nothing that was helpful.
Since the NDP's disclosure of municipal records, Wiersema said his office went back to federal bureaucrats to clarify their involvement in the selection of projects. Although some bureaucrats attended community meetings, he said he stands by the original report's conclusion that they were not involved in choosing which projects would get federal cash.
Wiersema said he has never, in more than 30 years of auditing, seen public servants shut out in such a way.
"Yes, it's one of a kind."
Under questioning from Conservative MPs, Wiersema said that once the projects were selected, bureaucrats administered payments for them in "a prudent and responsible manner," and that "taxpayers got what they paid for."
He couldn't say whether there might have been better projects that went unfunded or whether any of the gazebos, parks and downtown beautification projects that were funded — often hundreds of kilometres away from the summit site — were useful or necessary.
Nevertheless, Wiersema said later he sees no point in conducting a value for money audit of the 32 projects.
"The degree to which they were supported or needed for the summit is already a matter of the public record," he told reporters.
Nor did he think there'd be any point in conducting another audit of how the fund was set up and doled out.
"There's no documentation ... I'm not convinced that more audit work is what's called for here. This is a matter for Parliament to deal with," he said.