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since June 19, 2001


There's rot in the ship of state


There's rot in the ship of state

Sunday 1 February 2004, p. A14

Norm bought one of those fancy new 50-inch Pioneer plasma TVs. It cost nearly $19,000. I've seen one. The picture is awesome.

Norm also got a Yamaha amplifier, theatre speakers and top-of-the-line DVD player and VCR to go with his new "toy." The total price tag was $22,181.

He added eight super-comfy chairs and a two-seater sofa for another $6,400. That's nearly 29 grand, and here's the funny part: You and I paid for it.

Norm is Norman Steinberg, the director-general of audits and ethics in the federal Public Works department. He had all this "stuff" installed in his private Ottawa office because, he insists, they are valuable training tools for his staff.

Steinberg told the Ottawa Sun that once a month a handful of staff gather in his office to view webcasts. "We're at a point where it's cheaper for us to do web-based training," he said. "We were told that in terms of technology, in terms of what we're trying to achieve, it's more cost-effective" than sending staff all over the world for conferences on audit techniques and ethical standards.

He assured the Sun his staff got "the best cost available at the time" when buying the electronics and furniture.

But why a 50-inch plasma TV for $19,000 rather than a 29-inch, old-fashioned TV for $750? And if it's for staff training, why is the TV on the wall of Steinberg's office and not in some conference room?

Oh, Steinberg confessed to the Sun, he occasionally turns on the TV to watch Question Period in the Commons.

Well, that makes it all right then.

Since 1999, Steinberg has also billed taxpayers for $60,000 worth of desktop and laptop computers and software, and another $86,000 to attend conferences, including ones in China and Australia. The laptop he himself uses is a $3,200 Sony VAIO Picture Book, an upper level rig with enough memory and processor speed to edit digital photographs and movies and play the most advanced computer games -- tasks I'm sure help Steinberg pass the time while his staff are webcast training in his office, not to mention on all those long, overseas flights.

Because he is both an auditor and an ethics overseer, Steinberg claims, "I have to be more careful than many other public servants. I don't abuse the system."

Gee, I'd like to see the expense accounts of those he thinks are abusing the system.

The real kicker is Steinberg was given an award last year by the Liberal government for "strong ethical performance." It's a sign of how deep and wide the rot in Ottawa is when this kind of operator is praised for his ethics.

Steinberg is not yet in the territory of former privacy commissioner George Radwanski in his misuse of public funds, but from where Steinberg is, he can see Radwanski at the crest of the hill.

Self-indulgence and misuse of the public trust is endemic in the nation's capital.

In early January, a Public Service Commission (PSC) report revealed that half of all federal civil servants had acquired their jobs other than through true public competitions -- usually through knowing someone in the department or through rigged application processes.

Crucial documents regarding successful job-seekers' qualifications were permanently missing from scores of files. And in hundreds of cases where seemingly open competitions were held, job qualifications were advertised in such a way that only a single, predetermined candidate met them, most often an acquaintance or relative of the hirer.

But how could the civil service be expected to be cleaner, more ethical, more frugal than the government it served? The Chretien government was rife with, um, ethical challenges, from the top man down.

The trouble is, from what we learned this week, new Prime Minister Paul Martin is unlikely to be in a position to do much to cut out the rot.

Last year, the federal government insisted it had done only $137,000 in business with Martin's Canada Steamship Lines in the previous 10 years. This week, of course, it was revealed that that $137,000 had actually been $161 million, including $46 million during Martin's tenure as finance minister.

Assuming a steady $5.1 million in contracts per year for his nine years in office, that's nearly two per cent of CSL Group's annual revenues, enough that you won't miss it if you were doing an honest audit the first time around.

Last year we learned, too, that CSL had received loans of more than half a billion dollars from foreign banks with Canadian subsidiaries that Martin was responsible for regulating while finance minister. And we learned that his blind trust -- more than an arm's-length trust into which cabinet ministers are to put their assets while in office -- wasn't blind at all. Once or twice a year while finance minister, Martin discussed at length corporate goings-on with CSL executives.

And the Ottawa consulting and image-making firm, Earnscliffe, that was instrumental in electing Martin to lead the Liberals, routinely, while he was in finance, both represented the department in communications contracts and lobbied the department on behalf of corporate clients.

Something is rotten in Ottawa, but it is doubtful whether Martin is the man to eradicate the blight.

Lorne Gunter
Columnist, Edmonton Journal
Editorial Board Member, National Post

Index to some of Lorne Gunter's articles

On global Warming

On other issues

whiterose.gif (6796 bytes)The White Rose
Thoughts are Free

Posted 2004 02 01