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Baird Condemns the Probe into $50 million in spending as a “PR stunt”

The Harper government created a $50-million legacy fund for selected projects in former industry minister Tony Clement's Muskoka riding.

The controversy over the G8 summit didn’t die as the Tories desperately try to defend themselves after $50 million that was supposed to be spent on border upgrades was instead spent on various projects in Tony Clement’s riding. Former Liberal MP Marlene Jennings asked the RCMP to ask for an inquiry into the spending while Tory attack dog John Baird claims that it is all a PR stunt.

The Mounties say that they haven’t launched a formal investigation into the $50 million in potentially misappropriated funds, but they have looked into Jennings's claim that there is something wrong with the expenses report. Earlier this month, the auditor general report concluded that the government “did not clearly or transparently” explain how the money was going to be spent when it sought Parliament's approval for a G8 legacy fund.

Jennings’s suspicions come from the less censored report that was leaked to the Canadian Press during the election campaign which more bluntly explained how the Conservatives “misinformed” parliament in its spending decisions.

In a letter sent to the director of public prosecutions on April 15, Jennings said that the government may have willingly violated two appropriations acts and the Financial Administration Act which state that the government must prove and display how it intends to spend money when it seeks parliamentary approval for funding.

She said that she didn’t hear any feedback until the March 24 letter from the RCMP that advised her that "the matter is with A Division Commercial Crime Section."

A day after the final copy of the auditor general report was released, she received a call from Cpl. Ray Warner who asked her to meet with him.

When the news broke out in the House of Commons, the NDP jumped on the opportunity to get the spotlight as Charlie Angus dubbed Clement as “the missing Member for Muskoka” and urged him to “come clean.”

“If he gets away with this $50-million scheme, then start counting your spoons and silverware dear public, because they've just given this man the keys to the Treasury Board,” Angus charged.

In the meantime, the Conservatives have responded by calling the ordeal a “public relations stunt.” Baird said that the auditor general’s report found no evidence of a deliberate attempt to mislead parliament on the G8 spending. He also noted the $5 million in under spending as an example of how the claims are false.

Liberal MP Denis Coderre confronted the attack and asked Clement and Baird if they had been approached by the RCMP and asked if they would cooperate with the investigation. Neither answered, but Baird said again that it was a PR stunt as he dismissed it.

“We don't have all the facts in front of us," Official Opposition leader Jack Layton said. “It's evident it was a totally bizarre and unacceptable process, to have $50 million spent like that, with no defined process.”

Liberal leader Bob Rae said, “Whether in the end it produces more serious consequences, we'll just have to see. But I think when you look at something like this, funds that are allocated to one area that are then diverted to another, I think it's a legitimate area of inquiry.”

If the Conservatives didn’t have any wrong doing, then an RCMP probe shouldn’t frighten them and they are to be held accountable like every other government that will take power, whether they are innocent or guilty will be decided by the RCMP. Rejecting the probe and condemning it as a PR stunt doesn’t help sell the point that you’re innocent.

The government was approved for an $83 million border infrastructure fund but didn’t know that $50 million of it would be spent 300 km away in Tony Clement’s riding. It was spent on 32 projects including gazebos, parks, public toilets, and other beautification projects hours away from the summit site in Huntsville.

Auditor General John Wiersema said that the word “misinformed” was removed from the final report because he could not find any evidence to prove that it was deliberate, but was concerned about the complete absence of documentation which he called “very unusual and troubling.” He said that he had never seen anything like this in his lengthy career as an auditor.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Commons that the border fund is “frequently used for projects that are not in border communities.”

In the end of the day, it will be up to the RCMP to decide how the government stands on its $50 million spending spree and the people of Toronto still await that public inquiry into the way that the police decided to deal with protestors during the G20 summit.