Auditor general Merwan Saher’s investigation into Redford’s abuse of the province’s taxpayer-funded fleet of planes has sent shockwaves through the corridors of provincial power in Edmonton, leading to calls for an RCMP investigation, as well as the resignation of Finance Minister Doug Horner, under whose watch the abuse took place.
“The overall conclusion is that Premier Redford and her office used public resources inappropriately,” said Saher, during a press conference in Edmonton last week.
“That’s not just me exercising my personal view as to what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate. Appropriateness is judged in compliance with government policies, and most importantly, the principles that underline those policies. So when I say, ‘used government resources inappropriately,’ I mean not complying with policy, not complying with standards, principles — in simple language, not proper, and not right.”
Redford resigned from her position as Calgary-Elbow MLA the day before Saher’s report was released on Thursday. The former premier resigned from that office in March amid allegations of exorbitant expenses, while facing an MLA revolt over her alleged heavy-handed practices in dealing with caucus.
“Premier Redford and her office consistently failed to demonstrate, in the documents we examined, that their travel expenses were necessary, and a reasonable and appropriate use of public resources,” said Saher.
“Premier Redford used public resources for personal and partisan purposes, and inappropriately by restricting access, through use of the government aircraft fleet.”
The 44-page report indicates then-premier Redford used the government’s fleet of planes for partisan purposes at least three times, as well as for personal purposes, which included flying her daughter.
“This is the sense we have. The working around rules, the tendency, even to ignore rules, is to fulfill requests coming from the premier’s office in ways that avoided leaving the premier with personal responsibility for those decisions,” said Saher.
“What I’m really talking about is the ability for someone in an office at a very senior level to exert influence. Others who had to interact with the premier and her office, I think they felt in some way…trapped in this. After all the premier is the premier. The premier should be afforded certain courtesies. This is being asked, it’s what the premier wants, I’ll do it. That is the problem.”
Saher touched on the creation of the premier’s so-called “sky palace” residential suite that had been planned for construction in a government building, but admitted he had not been tasked with this investigation as part of his probe of expenses, and would not comment extensively on the issue.
On the use of the government’s air fleet, Saher noted it had not been explained why an internal report indicating $3.9 million could have been saved using commercial aircraft had been ignored, or if the overall cost of fleet operation was justified for government purposes considering the alternatives.
“The department of treasury board and finance has not explained to Albertans why it believes the extra costs of alternatives to owning a fleet of aircraft is judged to be worthwhile. One of the facts that is arguably the most troubling is the personal use of public assets. That’s a fact, and that’s wrong,” said Saher.
Little Bow MLA Ian Donovan commented the auditor general’s report is typical of what can happen when a polical party has held sway over provincial office for far too long.
“It just goes to show you have to keep an eye on what’s going on. When you look at it elected officials, especially the premier, should have a definite level of ethics, especially being a lawyer. It’s unfortunate, and you can see how power corrupts people. People obviously felt they couldn’t speak out against her, and that just goes into that whole level and power of and entitlement. You should always be able to speak your mind and say what your thinking, and not be in that spot where you feel you could lose your job for pointing out the things that aren’t right.”
Some culpability for the debacle must be borne by the minister responsible as well as the rest of caucus, according to Donovan.
“I guess what bothers me most is obviously cabinet had a pretty good idea what was going on. That’s why they got rid of her as a leader. It’s just a black eye for Alberta in general. As a taxpayer in this province, it’s not good, but these are the kinds of things we’re fishing out and dealing with now. We can’t turn a blind eye — we have to make examples of them. The travel, and using the jets as her own personal limousines basically, it’s pretty sad.”
Ultimately the former premier must take overall responsibility for the actions of her staff, added Donovan.
“At the end of the day, whether she knew about it all or not, ultimately the buck stops with her, as it was her staff that was doing it. She has to take some accountability for it.”
Donovan noted cultivating an environment where no one feels they can speak out against the leadership hierarchy is particularly problematic in a modern government.
“If you know something is wrong, whether it’s the premier or the leader of your party, you need to raise the issue. Hearing from some of them that they knew there was stuff going on, but they didn’t dare say anything because they wanted to become a minister, or keep their minister’s job — that’s not democracy. You should be able to have freedom of speech.”
In his report, Saher stopped short of criticizing the entire public service of Alberta, indicating there was no evidence for a widespread disregard of policies and rules.
The report did include a recommendation for the treasury board to institute an improved oversight procedure with regard to the office of the premier.
“I believe if there had been oversight, arguably the failings that are chronicled in this report might have been prevented or detected earlier,” said Saher. “And I mean oversight with the capacity to challenge substantively — it has to be oversight that has the authority, the capacity, and the will to challenge the authority that is embodied in the premier.”
Interim Premier Dave Hancock called for an RCMP investigation into Redford’s actions last week following the release of the report.
The Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta has also promised to pay back $6,500 to cover the three government flights that were used for partisan purposes.
More constituents of the riding are expressing disgust and frustration as revelations about the inner circle and fiscal practices of the current government are reaching the light of public scrutiny, concluded Donovan.
“No wonder people have lost a lot of trust in elected officials, when you here more and more of this stuff coming out. The final consensus is it really comes down to people who are entitled. They truly think that once they get something behind their name — be it MLA, minister, or premier — that they are above everybody else. We’ll see what the RCMP does with it. It is sad that we’re at that state where the more we dig into it, it just seems to get worse and worse. A lot of my constituents I talk to think it’s definitely time for a change on this. I guess we’ll see whenever we have the next election.”