(Un)tender(ed) came the contracts: Liveblogging Public Accounts

10:55:21 AM
So I have to start out by apologizing, in advance, for bolting from this committee before the main event: which will be the hour-long closing number by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, wherein he will attempt to bluster and blarney his way through any unfortunate revelations that surface during the lead-up. I agonized over whether to ditch the Khadr subcommittee for one day so I could stay here ’til the credits rolled, but—oh, what can I say? Stupid sense of social responsibility. Between now and then, tho, I will bring you every thrilling minute of testimony on those speechwriting contracts that has caused the minister such consternation since its discovery by the press.

10:59:52 AM
Okay, the meeting has only just got underway, and John Williams is on a tear: He’s furious—furious—that the meeting will run for three hours, since it means he has to bail on a lunch with his constituents just so he can sit around with 13 other people to talk about “a little $120,000 contract”—and now they’ll go home sad and bereft and convinced that their MP doesn’t have time with them, and— BANG BANG! That was chairman Shawn Murphy bringing his song of sorrow to an abrupt halt, chiding him for his truculence, and handing the floor over to Bob Wright, the deputy minister of the Treasury Board.

11:03:12 AM
Over to you, Deputy Minister. I’ve been rereading Yes, Prime Minister lately, and I have to say that it’s hard not to hear the ghost of Sir Humphrey chortling quietly in the background as Wright lays out his mandate—he manages the department —in the most low-key and methodical manner possible. He gives a shoutout to the Federal Accountability Act—ole FAAey, as it’s known to its friends—and generally gives an excellent impression of an entirely competent bureaucrat who is just a little frustrated at having been dragged before committee to explain why the minister issued an untendered contract to a former Queen’s Park crony from that magical era of Mike Harrisdom.

11:07:20 AM
And now—Bob Wright, the deputy minister of Finance, who gets things started by pointing out that there were actually several contracts between the department and Hugh MacPhie that predated his work on the fall economic statement. He was hired for that job because he had “strong knowledge of the minister’s communication style”—by this point, don’t we all, Deputy Minister?—and generally seems to be doing his best to justify the contracts. He’s pleased to answer questions, which is lucky, since the committee will be pleased to ask them.

11:11:12 AM
Borys—as always, he needs no last name as far as ITQ is concerned—kicks off the first round by asking if Wright knew the minister was offering untendered contracts to MacPhie, and the DM, after a tiny but perceptible pause, says yes, he did. Really? Borys pounces: According to documents obtained under ATI, several of his—Wright’s—staffers were quite concerned by the process. Wright reminds him that the minister’s office is not operated by departmental officials. It was the minister’s chief of staff who awarded the contract, and he sought and was given advice from the department on how to deal with the issue, but there was no specific advice given.

Borys wonders if, given all the communications staffers employed by Finance, one of those people could have done the work instead; no, apparently: MacPhie was hired to deal with the political management of the file. Borys is sceptical, and points to a handwritten note on a memo—another ATI Easter egg—that suggests that Mike Giles, the bureaucrat involved in the file, had advised the department that this was the case; apparently, he also warned the minister that it would be hard to defend sole-sourcing a communications contract, as such matters usually undergo considerable scrutiny. “Well, that’s true,” notes Wright, mildly. If you’re going to do something other than a competitive process, he says, “you better defend it well.”

11:19:38 AM
Borys’ time having run out, the Bloc’s Jean LaForest takes over, and asks about the process for tendering contracts; on the other side of the table, Pierre Poilievre fiddles with his BlackBerry, and David Sweet and Brian Fitzpatrick hold a huddled consult. David Sweet and I seem to be living oddly parallel existences these days, at least as far as committees go.

11:21:37 AM
Wayne Wouters notes that contracts—sole-sourced, I gather—over a certain value should go to the board for approval. Does that mean that the $120,000 conformed with the guidelines? Wouters is careful in his response; he notes that the minister had the power to award it, and lists the reasons why that would be appropriate, in some cases—speed (think ice storm crisis communications), ice storm, or if only one person is capable of performing the work, which is usually related to intellectual property.

11:24:55 AM
Bob Wright goes out of his way to remind the committee that the minister’s office budget is not managed by the department, although he seems fine with the decision. The person authorized to make it was the minister’s chief of staff, and there was no problem with that.

11:26:41 AM
And now, John Williams, who seems to be still suffering from a bout of grumpiness over his cancelled lunch, and who challenges the deputies to confirm that they are, in fact, the accounting officers for their respective departments. They concur, puzzledly, and he then lays out what, I guess, is his definition of ministerial responsibility, in which it would ultimately have been their (respective) responsibility/ies to go to the minister’s office if there was anything amiss with the contracts—not that there was. “You agreed with the minister,” Williams suggests. “I didn’t disagree,” Wright replies, carefully.
If all the rules were followed, Williams huffed, “why are we here?”

It’s so weird how I recall that the John Williams of yore—the opposition fireband John Williams, who devoted his every waking moment to routing out corruption—had a very different view of ministers who hid behind officials when confronted over a decision.

“The chief of staff made a judgment,” Wright informs him. “I don’t have to agree with it … He was accountable for that judgment to the minister.” Williams, however, disagrees: he thinks it falls within his aegis, and is trying to make Wright say that he agreed with how the rules were followed, rather than just that he didn’t disagree. The deputy minister, however, is stubbornly resisting.

11:35:15 AM
Finally, the NDP’s David Christopherson takes the final slot in the first round; he wonders at what point the deputy minister would have sounded the alert. $5 million? Would that have been “so beyond the pale” that he would have raised the issue formally? Wright assures him that he would do if there was something beyond the norm—a “major problem” or even a pattern of abuse—that he would brief the minister’s staff on the issue, and, if necessary, bring it up with his colleagues at other departments.

Patterns—that reminds Christopherson of a recent report by the Ottawa Citizen that “crunched the numbers” and found a dramatic increase in the number of contracts just under the limit for sole-sourced work; Wright recalls the study, ostensibly dimly, but downplays it. “It was a non-issue,” he assures the committee. “Those contracts were all within the rules.”

Christopherson points out that if you make the rules, you can make sure that anything you want to do is lawful; he wants to know if there is anything wrong with the Citizen‘s crunching. Wright assures him that every contract meets the rules “even redefined by the Citizen,” but I have to say that Christopherson doesn’t seem all that convinced. Wayne Wouters tries as well; he begs ignorance of the exact numbers, but—oh, there Wright goes again, suggesting that the limits may be too low. “So you change the rules because everyone is breaking it?” Christopherson challenges him, just as his time runs out.

11:43:17 AM
Charlie Hubbard wants to know when the deputy first met MacPhie, but more importantly, when he became aware of the “problem” contract—before or after it hit the press? Wright says he was informed “within days of the advice” that the advice had been given. He seems weirdly torn between defending the contract as entirely on the up-and-up, and insulating himself and the department from the actual decision to tender it.

11:47:43 AM
Were MacPhie and his firm employees given security clearance, Hubbard wonders. Yes—secret—there were only a few of them, but they came to Ottawa and worked diligently. “They were very expensive consultants,” Hubbard observes. He also found it odd that money was also added on for expenses—is that a normal way of proceeding, he wonders? It’s not unusual, Wright says. “So we have no assurance that it was under the $25,000 limit,” Hubbard concludes.

11:50:08 AM
Oh good, Poilievre is going to tell us what Canadian taxpayers care about, and that’s whether the government got value for money. Hear that, taxpayers? Don’t worry about all that stuff about Treasury Board guidelines. He wants to know how many hours, roughly, MacPhie and his staff worked, and the answer is “many”—far more hours than they eventually billed the government, which was awfully altruistic of them. The number 800 hours is bandied about, and Wright happily confirms that these were hard-working little speechwritery people; slaving all hours of the day and night, and edited the “entire budget document”—400plus pages!

Wow, Poilievre sure knows a lot about the inner workings of Flaherty’s office during that frantic pre-budget time; he also points out that Team MacPhie conducted roundtables and focus groups.

Poilievre asks “as a trivia question”: how much, total, was spent in the budget? Hilariously, Wright—the Finance deputy—doesn’t seem to know, although it turns out that’s because he misunderstood the question.

11:56:21 AM
Why do we even have a Finance department if three consultants can basically write, edit and deliver the entire budget? I see cost-savings ahead!

11:58:00 AM
Shawn Murphy wraps things up by giving Wright another chance to explain how this isn’t really his decision, not that he disagrees with it, and then—it’s a 30-second recess while they change the name plates. Next up: Hugh MacPhie and Sarah Mintz!

12:00:18 PM
Okay, I don’t want to alarm anyone, but Hugh MacPhie looks to be about 22 year old, and bears a haunting resemblance to Pierre Poilievre. He’s now testifying about how proud he was to be part of the budget. His firm is small, but they compensate with the fine quality of staffers—and they work “plain hard.” Plain hard? PLAIN HARD? That’s what Finance pays him for? Phrases like that?

This is going to be brutal.

According to federal officials, he says, the 2007 budget was one of the “largest” ever, in terms of papers, supplements, brochures, pictures of inukshuks.

12:03:53 PM
MacPhie, if you were wondering, is still listing all the work that goes into a budget—I mean, other than the actual budget. Focus groups, communications strategies, “creative suggestions” (hopefully not related to fiscal policy)—they did it all. Really, at this point, I feel like we—the Canadian people—should give them both a big, untendered hug.

12:06:19 PM
Now it’s Sarah Mintz’s turn to talk about how hard she worked, and read her resume, and—what the heck is she going on about? I’ve never seen such a weirdly junior achievement club presentation at committee. It’s kind of disorienting. Now she’s praising her past bosses—Flaherty, and also Harris— and recalling when she was “placed” in the premier’s office, which makes her sound like some sort of ornamental bush.

12:10:23 PM
Sarah Mintz is very, very, very proud to have attended every provincial PC convention since the mid-90s. When she “received the call from the Canadian people”—with the minister’s office standing in as “the Canadian people” for the occasion”—she was only too happy to serve.

I cannot believe these people exist.

12:13:19 PM
A tragic development! According to MacPhie—who is being questioned by a genuinely befuddled John McCallum, who also doesn’t seem to believe these witnesses are for real—he currently has no contract with the federal government. Insert sad face here. :(

12:14:29 PM
MacPhie just tried to call a point of order—how adorable, really—leading to a bizarre interaction amongst him, the chair and John Williams, who gets papa bearish over McCallum’s line of questioning, which, Williams complained, was just “badgering.”

12:16:31 PM
MacPhie maintains that he and his team worked over 18hours a day, evenings and weekends—and that may even be an understatment! More than 800 hours, is the upshot, according to the MacPhiekateers.

12:19:12 PM
MacPhie confirms that it was, in fact, Flaherty’s office that acted on behalf of “Canada” in calling him to serve, and then goes on to recall his Queen’s Park days, and how he didn’t actually know Flaherty all that well.

12:20:52 PM
The Bloc is up—Jean Yves Laforet again—and he, too, doesn’t seem to know how to deal with the ebullient Up With People!-flavoured insouciance of the witnesses. He tries to ask about the MacPhiekateers’ “other clients”—nixed by the chair—and the total billings. MacPhie sort of dances around the question, and says that the federal government represents approximately a third of the firm’s business, but then, confusingly, contradicts himself by saying that over 90 per cent is not from the government, and—I’m so confused. I can see why you’d want these people to write your budget, tho.

12:25:48 PM
John Williams protests again when Bloc MP Lucien tries to ask about contracting procedures; MacPhie gives a charmingly boyish response to the question, claiming that he’s not an expert on federal contracting practices, and wouldn’t want to guess.

12:28:59 PM
With that, David Sweet takes over, and begins by chiding the Liberals for focusing so unhealthily on the political connections, rather than what keen, talented young people these were. It turns out that Sarah Mintz is actually  David Sweet’s former constituent—and by a lucky chance, he’s here, and wants her to talk about what a “financial hit” she took by taking the job at Finance, given how much she could have made at a private law firm. Plus, expenses! She had to travel back and forth from Toronto to Ottawa—she had a 416 area code on her cell phone—but she was proud and excited to serve the Canadian people.

12:35:12 PM
Now the two of them are congratulating each other—seriously—and David Sweet is practically turning into a parody of himself by praising their work; it’s almost unbelievable to him, he says, that they could have delivered an entire budget for such a low price!

12:36:53 PM
David Christopherson starts out by disclosing that he actually knows Mintz’s mom, who is an activist, and promises not to hold the fact that MacPhie “aided and abetted” Mike Harris against him. Then, having broken the ice, he wonders who, exactly, contacted her. “The minister’s office,” she repeats— the budget director. He then quotes from Stephen Harper during his pre-prime ministerial death to patronage days, and wonders if just maybe her involvement with the Tories led to her getting that call. She doesn’t think so, no. She has degrees and credentials.

12:40:21 PM
Christopherson moves to MacPhie, and wonders why he should have made more money in 45 days than most Finance officials do for a year—what did he add? MacPhie thanks him for the question—they both do that, every time —and sort of rambles about his skills, and talents, and suggests that he’s “too shy” to list all his qualifications. Somehow, his lower half unaccountably fails to burst into flames. “Not enough,” Christopherson bellows. “C’mon, what else?”

12:44:35 PM
Okay, now this is just getting painful: Borys is reading from the MacPhie website, which gives credit to his “friends” for “getting him where he is today”—which, as Borys notes, is in front of the Public Accounts Committee. Then he asks MacPhie to table the contract, and MacPhie agrees to “take it under advisement,” apparently under the impression that this was a voluntary issue. John Williams—again!—comes to his defence and huffs angrily over private individuals being asked to disclose their business relationships with the government of Canada, which, if he’d felt that way back during the sponsorship scandal, would have pretty much shut down the Public Accounts’ investigation thereof—the Public Accounts Committee that was chaired at the time, if memory serves, by John Williams.

And with that, I have to flee to Human Rights, which will be far less surreal, but hopefully slightly more substantial. See you there in—uh, now.

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