03/11/2012 03:00 EDT | Updated 05/11/2012 05:12 EDT

More questions arise over emergency clause for Nova Scotia shipbuilding campaign

HALIFAX - An emergency clause used by the Nova Scotia government to award an untendered contract to promote its shipbuilding bid was used 12 other times last year, but provincial records show nearly all of those contracts went to fix problems that risked public safety.

The province's Economic Development Department released a list of 12 projects in addition to the one given to consulting firm MT&L Public Relations Ltd. for its so-called "Ships Start Here" marketing campaign.

Those projects, which included repair work for roads that were washed out after flash flooding, stand in contrast to the $303,000 contract for the shipbuilding campaign.

"Overwhelmingly, these projects relate to emergency construction situations where public safety is a concern," department spokesman Toby Koffman said in an email.

"For example, bridge and road damage."

Premier Darrell Dexter has defended Nova Scotia Business Inc., a provincial economic development agency, in its use of the emergency clause to award the marketing contract. He has said it was necessary to quickly respond to advertising campaigns from competitors vying for Ottawa's $25-billion contract to build combat navy vessels, which was launched in June 2010.

Dexter said it's not uncommon for provincial governments to use the emergency clause for marketing campaigns.

"Previous governments ... have approved communications contracts on an emergency basis so it's not that unusual," Dexter said.

All but one of the 12 contracts that went without tender last year were awarded to construction and excavation firms. In total, the government gave more than $2.5 million in untendered contracts using its emergency clause.

Among the list of projects requiring urgent action was a $289,893 untendered contract awarded to J&T van Zutphen Construction to repair extensive damage after a flash flood in August 2010 that washed out approaches to the Cape Breton community of Meat Cove.

A $122,901 contract was also awarded to D.W. Matheson and Sons to assist with repairs in the area.

A $228,000 contract was awarded to Hurlburt Construction for the removal and disposal of the Tusket Bridge, which was damaged in flooding caused by a late winter storm in 2010.

The largest contract was for $795,691, awarded to Municipal Ready Mix Ltd., for repairs to the Victoria Road culvert washed out in torrential rains that swamped Cape Breton in December 2010.

The lone exception was a $100,000 untendered contract awarded to Musial's Computer Consulting Inc. for work done on the Maritimes Radio Communications initiative, a project recently killed for being too costly.

"Everything sounds like an emergency," Conservative member Chris d'Entremont said.

Liberal member Andrew Younger said Dexter's defence of the untendered contract for the "Ships Start Here" campaign is losing credibility.

"I think the more information that comes out about this, the more we find out that the excuses the premier's office are coming up with just don't hold water," said Younger.

MT&L Public Relations began its work last April, but the province's Treasury Board did not authorize its contract until two months later.

Dexter said Nova Scotia Business Inc. sought Treasury Board's approval once it realized the work for MT&L Public Relations would exceed $100,000. Under government procurement rules, the board must approve emergency contracts worth more than $100,000.

The Irving shipyard in Halifax won Ottawa's shipbuilding contract last October.