Premier gives in, allows probe of grants
McGuinty changes mind amid uproar
May 11, 2007 04:30 AM
Queen’s Park Bureau
In a surprise about-face, Premier Dalton McGuinty has bowed to pressure for a special investigation into millions of dollars in immigrant aid grants to groups, several with strong Liberal ties.
His announcement yesterday that Ontario’s auditor general, Jim McCarter, will launch an immediate probe means voters should know well before the fall election whether the Liberal government was playing favourites with taxpayers’ money.
“There have been a number of questions raised,” acknowledged McGuinty, who made the decision Wednesday night, an aide said. “There has been innuendo and allegations – lots of them – and I think the best way for us to have conclusive findings was to refer to the auditor general.”
The move comes three weeks after the Toronto Star first revealed that a Bengali group whose director is a Liberal party member got a $250,000 grant.
In the last week, the Star has uncovered more Liberal links to groups, including the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada.
It has a former director now serving as a policy adviser to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Mike Colle, the man in charge of the grants.
Yesterday, McGuinty sent a letter to McCarter asking for a report by early July.
That’s two months earlier than the September deadline sought by the opposition with an eye to the Oct. 10 election.
It’s no accident the Liberals wanted the report to come out earlier, when many Ontarians will be on vacation and not thinking about the looming campaign, said Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory.
“I think in this case there’s been time left so, in case there’s a bit of an odour after the report is submitted, it might be washed away by the summer winds,” Tory said, arguing the Liberals have already been damaged.
“I think they hurt themselves quite badly by letting this drag out for three weeks because it showed that they’re not ready to do the right thing … they had to be dragged kicking and screaming.”
McGuinty said he has given McCarter “full and free rein” to look at how $32 million went to 110 groups as the last two fiscal years drew to a close.
“I’ve assured him of our complete co-operation. He can be as expansive on this matter as he desires.”
Tory and NDP Leader Howard Hampton urged the premier to replace Colle, at least until the probe is completed. But McGuinty refused, saying the minister “has my continuing confidence.”
The Liberals are hoping the investigation will put an end to a daily barrage of questions about how the grants were awarded without a formal application process, criteria or advance notice to groups that money was available.
There were also concerns about McGuinty’s reputation.
The government has tried to cultivate an image of transparency by expanding the power of the provincial auditor to look into spending by the government and related agencies such as Hydro One and children’s aid societies, and to examine the provincial books to provide an accurate accounting of Ontario’s finances before politicians begin making election promises.
“Dalton thinks of himself as a very straightforward, honest and open guy,” said a senior government insider.
“The types of questions you guys were asking for the last couple of days made us wonder if people were doubting that. We had nothing to hide so why not clear the air?”
Hampton said pressure was growing on the government from newspaper editorials, including two in the Star, pushing for a special investigation, and callers to talk radio programs across the province. “I think the government realized that they were in trouble.”
Hampton yesterday accused McGuinty of playing dirty politics by trying to portray opposition calls for a probe as anti-immigrant sentiment.
“There were insinuations and innuendo of racism whenever opposition members asked for an investigation and a report by the auditor general,” said Hampton.
The premier stood in the Legislature yesterday and agreed with a statement from Tory that racism did not motivate opposition MPPs to raise questions about accountability for the grants.
“I think that was the most important thing that happened today,” said Tory.
McGuinty’s decision to call in the auditor followed at least two attempts to defuse the controversy.
Several days after the scandal broke, McGuinty announced the government would close the loophole that allowed groups to get grants without submitting formal applications.
A website with application forms was set up days after the scandal first broke, with the premier repeatedly admitting to “regret” that it hadn’t been done sooner.
The government also tried to calm the situation by using its majority in the Legislature’s public accounts committee to block NDP and Conservative motions to have the auditor general conduct a special investigation before the election.
Instead, the Liberal majority on the committee passed a motion requiring groups who received money in the last year to report on how it was spent within six months – a timeline that wouldn’t have them report until after the Oct. 10 election.
The $32 million in grants over the last two years included $20 million in the fiscal year ended March 31.
Finance Minister Greg Sorbara said the money is mainly from larger-than-expected tax revenues that allowed the government to allocate a total of $1.4 billion in year-end surplus funds to all ministries.
The ‘slush fund’ controversy
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Mike Colle has been under fire over the way $32 million in immigrant aid and other grants was handed out to 110 groups in the last two years.
Several groups have Liberal ties, raising questions as to whether the money was part of a “slush fund” to allies of the government with an election approaching Oct. 10. Yesterday, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the auditor general will launch a probe into the spending.
Among the groups in the spotlight:
Iranian-Canadian Community Centre ($200,000 grant):
Multiple Liberal ties. One director is former policy adviser to Health Minister George Smitherman, who has given patronage appointments to four centre directors. A former director is the Liberal candidate for Richmond Hill in the Oct. 10 provincial election, another former director is president of the Liberal riding association in Richmond Hill. A current director is a long-time acquaintance of Finance Minister Greg Sorbara, who is also chairman of the Liberal re-election effort.
Chinese Professionals Association of Canada ($250,000 grant):
A former director, Michael Huang, is a policy adviser to Colle.
Bengali Cultural Society ($250,000 grant):
Director Farhana Rahman is a member of the Ontario Liberal Party.
Ontario Khalsa Darbar ($250,000 grant):
Several directors are Liberal donors. The Sikh group is embroiled in a court case over allegations that $2.5 million in membership fees are not reflected in its books.
Inter-Cultural Neighbourhood Social Services of Peel ($23,914 grant):
Executive director is common-law partner of Mississauga West MPP Bob Delaney.