VICTORIA - The Opposition New Democrats defended their use of a taxpayer-supported political fund Tuesday despite concerns from Auditor General John Doyle about its partisan nature and Liberal claims of NDP kickbacks.
"What we did was appropriate," said NDP caucus chairman Shane Simpson. "It was above board. It was straight up. There were no rules broken here. We're quite comfortable with that."
He said Doyle raised concerns about the ongoing status of the fund, which was approved earlier by former legislative comptroller Dan Arbic.
Arbic was laid off last fall after an audit by Doyle concluded the legislature's finances were in such a state of disorganization he couldn't determine if bills were being paid.
"There's obviously the clause in here (the documents) that referenced about partisanship," said Simpson. "What we have said is work we did was political. We don't believe there was anything partisan about it."
But Bill Bennett, the community, sport and cultural development minister, said the least the NDP can do is apologize for using tax dollars to fund political activities.
Bennett said the Liberals apologized to multicultural communities for their much-maligned multicultural outreach program of trying to secure quick wins among ethnic voters.
The outreach policy has prompted an internal Liberal review and drew the resignations of John Yap, the former multiculturalism minister, and Kim Haakstad, Premier Christy Clark's former deputy chief of staff.
"This is a kickback scheme," said Bennett about the NDP fund. "This is a scheme that uses money that's intended for constituency offices around the province."
Bennett said because of legislative privilege, the public would never have known the fund existed had information not been leaked.
Leaked draft documents from Doyle's office and a leaked briefing note prepared for the government's all-party Legislative Assembly Management Committee examined how the NDP built a fund worth hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and used the money to help organize political activities on behalf of party members in multicultural communities.
Doyle's office declined to comment on the matter, stating the auditor general does not comment on draft reports.
The NDP Members Constituency Office Centralized Fund was created in November 2005 and involved each of the 35 British Columbia NDP MLA's contributing $202 a month from the constituency office allowance to the account.
"From 2006 up to December 31, 2011, the fund has made total expenditures of $459,790 and currently has an unexpended balance of $145,733," said the briefing note.
The briefing note is connected to leaked portions of a draft report from Doyle, stating that by March 2009, the NDP amassed $260,000 from monthly constituency office payments and most of the money was used to fund partisan activities.
It details the concerns of the auditor general about how the fund was managed and documented and whether the fund should be permitted to carry a surplus at the end of each year.
"Our review of supporting documentation underlying expenditure amounts charged to this account indicates that funds accruing to this account were being used for partisan purposes and not for goods or services consistent with the original purpose of the constituency office," the documents said.
The audit documents said the NDP also used some of these funds to balance their caucus expenses.
"Similarly, at the end of fiscal 2009, NDP caucus contractor expenses of approximately $45,000 were reclassified to this same payable account," said the audit documents.
"This reclassification meant that NDP caucus expenses were effectively paid out of NDP MLA constituency office funds. We note as well that without this entry, NDP caucus expenses would have been over budget in 2009."
The briefing note also stated the majority of the centralized fund was used to pay Gabriel Yiu, a two-time former NDP candidate who provides multicultural outreach services for the NDP caucus.
"Currently, the majority of spending from the fund is for the contracted services of Gabriel Yiu," said the note. "The legislative Assembly Comptroller's office does not have a copy of this contract, so the nature of the services Mr. Yiu provides are not known."
Yiu, who ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in the 2005 and 2009 elections, is nominated to run for the NDP in the Vancouver-Fraserview riding this spring.
Simpson said most of the money was used to receive political advice from people, including Yiu, whom the Liberals were suggesting last week was a hired NDP gun in multicultural communities.
The Liberals said Yiu was paid $327,000, which the NDP did not deny.
Simpson, who said last week Yiu took unpaid leaves of absence to run as an NDP candidate and never offered advice to the party, said the same applies to the centralized fund.
"Not one dime went to the party," he said. "No advice was given to the party in any way, shape or form. It was all applied to the caucus and caucus members."
Simpson openly discussed Yiu's services to the NDP caucus.
"Gabriel provided no information to the NDP, the party," he said. "He provided support to the caucus. He provided support to caucus members. He provided advice to members who have large Chinese constituencies."
Simpson said Yiu provided commentary in the media and "he did provide advice on how we best encourage the cultural activities in the Chinese community."
Simpson said Yiu had a contract that was "open for everybody to see."
Yiu said he does not work for the NDP party but views his paid work for the NDP caucus as an opportunity to bring the concerns and wishes of the Chinese community to the Opposition.
"I never worked for the party," he said. "I work for the Opposition caucus. The involvement with the party is only when I run for election."
The leaked documents stated the centralized fund was created following a request of the NDP caucus and was authorized by all NDP members at that time.