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A reasonable apprehension of bias

BY DERMOD TRAVIS

Integrity BC

One person’s conflict-of-interest – real, potential or apparent – isn’t always a conflict-of-interest for another, but how do they act when they’re the same person in similar situations?

The Treasury Board of Canada’s guidelines on an “apparent conflict of interest” go further than “a reasonable apprehension of bias” which is “the legal standard, in Canadian law, for disqualifying a judge or decision-maker in an administrative tribunal.”

The guidelines note: “given the heavy trust and responsibility taken on by the holding of a public office or employ, it is appropriate that government officials are correspondingly held to codes of conduct which, for an ordinary person, would be quite severe.”

A recent headline in the Vancouver Sun over the spending scandal at the B.C. legislature was odd given the circumstances: “Bellringer surprised by number of B.C. senior staffers with spending issues.”

An alternate headline might have been closer to the mark: “Legislature’s auditor surprised by auditor general’s report on number of B.C. senior staffers with spending issues.”

In a nutshell that’s the crux of the problem with Carol Bellringer’s recent report on expense policies and practices at the B.C. legislature.

Last January – in a story headlined “B.C. auditor general unhappy MLAs want outside audit of legislature” – the Vancouver Sun reported: “Liberal house leader Mary Polak has said some MLAs in the legislative assembly management committee (LAMC) felt Bellringer’s office was too close to the issue.”

Bellringer was quoted asking: “If someone said to me you are too close to it, well too close to what?”

One consideration that may have weighed heavily on LAMC was the fact that the auditor general is also the legislative assembly’s auditor.

Few would be comfortable at the thought of asking any of the big four accounting firms to conduct an “independent audit” of their own audit.

The day after the Sun’s article, Bellringer – unprompted and before a single receipt had even been pulled – had this to say on CBC radio: “I am going to call out Kate Ryan-Lloyd she’s the most spectacular employee of the legislature and she plays a big part in setting a very strong ethical tone.”

Ryan-Lloyd was, and is still, interim clerk of the legislature. Her husband is the manager of compliance, controls and research in the auditor general’s office.

Consider how a similar scenario played out in Manitoba a decade ago.

During a session of the standing committee on Crown corporations in November 2009, Manitoba’s then-Progressive Conservative party leader Hugh McFadyen posed a series of questions to Rosann Wowchuk, the then-minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, over a series of allegations raised by an anonymous whistleblower.

The brewing controversy had managed to ensnare the province’s auditor general as well, since she had once sat on Manitoba Hydro’s board of directors prior to their appointment as auditor general.

In 2008, someone had written the auditor general requesting an audit into Hydro. The auditor general’s reply noted: “prior to my appointment as Auditor General in July 2006, I was a member of the Manitoba Hydro board of directors and thus, neither I, nor my staff, are in a position to follow up on your request as independent auditors.”

Yet, one year later, the same auditor general was about to undertake that very audit.

McFadyen’s question: “how is it that in August of 2008, the auditor general is not independent, but now, in the highly politicized environment we’re in today, suddenly that same auditor general and (their) staff are suddenly, magically, independent?”

McFadden added: “I understand that they are professionals. At the same time, you do not grade yourself. You do not give yourself a mark of 100 percent with – and that’s exactly what you’re doing in this situation when you – when you ask the Auditor General to grade herself in this situation. And yes, there is a conflict of interest.”

The auditor general in question – Carol Bellringer – stood down within a week in favour of an outside auditor.

Premier John Horgan got it right, he “intentionally distanced himself from the scandal because it’s no secret he was always opposed to the appointment of Craig James as clerk and didn’t want to appear biased.”

LAMC was right the first time. The circumstances demanded an out-of-province auditor and they shouldn’t have allowed themselves to be bullied into making another decision.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC www.integritybc.ca

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