08/08/2012 04:28 EDT | Updated 10/08/2012 05:12 EDT

F-35 Scandal: Audit Up In Air More Than Two Months After Deadline

FILE - In this file photo taken on July 14, 2011 and released by U.S. Air Force, a USAF F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base. Japan selected the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, to replace aging jets in its air force and bolster its defense capability amid regional uncertainty. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago)

OTTAWA - The Harper government has yet to hire an independent auditor to crunch the numbers on the F-35 deal, more than two months after its self-imposed deadline to clean up the stealth fighter fiasco.

Public Works quietly re-issued a tender on Wednesday, asking for an audit firm to come forward and take on the politically explosive task of verifying the figures provided by National Defence, which was accused last spring of hiding the true cost of the multi-billion dollar program.

The tender was re-issued because the original call did not allow accounting firms enough flexibility to sub-contract portions of the complex project, said Amber Irwin, a spokeswoman for Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose.

"This request for proposals (RFP) issued today will ensure that this independent review is done properly and supersedes the previous one issued," Irwin said.

"The requirements of the RFP have been broadened to ensure qualified bidders can fulfil the task required by the government."

Asked whether the delay will affect the minister's promise to table the independent cost assessment in Parliament this fall, Irwin replied, "The National Fighter Procurement Secretariat is committed to getting this done right and in a timely manner."

The tender does not close until the end of the month and Irwin would not speculate on how quickly a company will be chosen and get to work.

New Democrat procurement critic Matthew Kellway was mystified by the delays and suggested that Canadians will not see the review until almost the end of the year — or maybe even early next year.

It is absurd, he said.

"This is a process that is out of control," Kellway said. "The government has gone to great lengths and jumped over a lot of hurdles, likely at tremendous cost to Canadians, to avoid releasing numbers that are being producers by the Joint Strike Fighter Program office."

The Pentagon is managing the multi-national F-35 program, which Canada officially signalled it was part of in 2010. The U.S. military already produces regular cost updates on the still developmental aircraft.

"The answer, I think, is very simple: Reveal those numbers as you promised to reveal in the House of Commons — the numbers that come out of the Joint Strike Fighter Program office— to Canadians, attach whatever qualifications you want to attach to those numbers, discredit them all you want," said Kellway.

"But you made a commitment to reveal them to Canadians. So put them out there."

Just how much the highly automated jet will cost has been the subject of intense debate since the spring of 2011, when the parliamentary budget officer first questioned the Harper government's claims.

Kevin Page's report and credibility were the subject of intense attacks by the Conservatives, who launched repeated broadsides against the budget officer's groundbreaking assessment.

But it was a subsequent study by auditor Michael Ferguson that sent the government into damage control mode. The findings struck at the heart of the Conservative government's claim of being prudent fiscal managers when it declared the Defence Department left the long-term operational costs out of its public estimates.

It also said the project was given the green light by public works without the proper documentation.

The auditor says the true lifetime expense for the multi-role fighter is expected to exceed $25 billion, far higher than the $16 billion claimed by National Defence.

Providing independently verified numbers within 60 days of Ferguson's April 3 report was a hallmark of the Harper government's seven-point response, which also saw management of the procurement taken away from the Defence Department.

Kellway said he believes the government has gone too far.

While he agreed with putting the project in the hands of Public Works, he said it seems the government is determined to blame National Defence by not believing anything it says.

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