Monday, October 24, 2005

Uneasy Lie The Heads of the Crown -- Corporations, That Is

Spooked by all the hubbub surrounding David Dingwall, our Minister of Transport, Jean Lapierre, has sent a CYA letter to the heads of all the Crown corporations that report to him:

Citing "recent events surrounding the expenses and salaries of two CEOs of government-related corporations," Lapierre warns in one of the letters dated Oct. 17 that attention on them has been "heightened."

"The purpose of this letter is to remind you of the sensitivity of this issue and the need to operate within the limits of appropriate standards, guidelines, prudence and probity given that your organizations are public entities and therefore subject to public scrutiny," he says.

He asks for assurance that the chiefs and their boards of directors are being "vigilant" to prevent a repeat of the firestorm which has engulfed Dingwall, who resigned this month as head of the mint over his expense claims.

Lapierre also asks in the letters that the chiefs promptly report to him "any special authorities granted by you or your board that may be viewed as problematic."

The reason, he notes in the wake of Dingwall's grilling by a parliamentary committee this past week, is that "I may be questioned, as shareholder of the Government of Canada, on the reasonableness of such authorities."

That last paragraph, incidentally, is why this is a CYA letter. The last thing he needs is yet another Crown corporation executive going overboard with taxpayers' money, particularly since the Minister is the one who has to defend it.

Who's likely to do that? According to the Treasury Board, Transport Canada is responsible for 58 Crown corporations, to varying degrees. Most of these are port facilities such as airports and harbours. The best known is probably VIA Rail, which could be seen in the same lines as the Mint in that it sells products to the public at large (i.e. rail travel packages).

Will the letter work? Probably not. Since the fiscal year's already almost two-thirds over, it's a little late to do anything about spring and summer binges. And the letter is quite likely to be forgotten in February and March, when all government agencies try to use up their remaining budgets.

Still, Mr. Lapierre can at least say that he tried. Not very hard, mind you, but he tried. He's certainly looking at Revenue Minister John McCallum and breathing a sigh of relief. After all, as recently as 2003, the Royal Canadian Mint was under Transport Canada's responsibility.