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Deputy minister points to the top

(PoliticsWatch posted March 1, 2004) OTTAWA -  The deputy minister of public works between 1993 and 2001, told a Commons committee today the Communications Co-ordination Services Branch, which operated the sponsorship program, was created in 1997 so that the public works minister could exert control over it. 

Ranald Quail repeatedly stated during his testimony before the public accounts committee that former prime minister Jean Chretien and former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano "wanted to move this forward" in relation to the sponsorship file. 

"He wanted to move this forward and he did," said Quail about Gagliano. "And he worked directly with the CCSB.

"Hence the reason for the very direct relationship between the CCSB and the minister," he said. "This is a very difficult situation for a deputy." 

Last month, Auditor General Sheila Fraser issued a scathing report on the sponsorship program that focused on $100 million of the $250 million spent on the program being funnelled to Quebec advertising agencies often for little or no work other than transferring cheques. 

The committee is examining what political influence was exerted in the creation of the program and its spending. 

But Quail failed to satisfy many committee members about how the CCSB was able to exist without the existing checks and balances that all other branches in the Public Works Department had.

Committee chair John Williams asked Quail point blank why this "unusual" infrastructure existed. 

"I don't know," he said. 

Conservative MP Paul Forseth questioned Quail about what the "real objective" of the sponsorship program was. 

"You were either in on it, or you were the patsy," asserted Forseth. "You know what the committee needs to know." 

Other MPs grilled Quail about how a number of audits that found irregularities in the mechanisms of the sponsorship program failed to tip him off about the possibility of problems in the program and didn't prevent the continued promotion of Chuck Guite, the public servant who ran the advertising branch and was later promoted to take charge of the sponsorship program in 1997.

"You didn't see that something was going on?" asked NDP MP Joe Comartin. 

"Well I just didn't," replied Quail. "This is a large department. It is a complex department. Did I remember every last thing? No." 

After the lengthy session, MPs continued to have questions about Quail's testimony. 

"We were never able to get a satisfactory answer as to why this department - the sponsorship program - was so outside the rules," said Williams. "I find it very strange that the audit department wouldn't pick it up.

"The minister was involved far more than he should, but we couldn't get the answer to the question whether the minister was calling the shots around the deputy minister or what the exact relationship was. We don't know."

Williams said a 1996 audit of advertising spending should have rung the alarm bells about Guite and the sponsorship program. 

Conservative MP Jason Kenny said he thinks Quail knows more about the "back-channel" communications occurring between Guite and Gagliano than he revealed. 

"It's quite clear the path leads back to Gagliano and (Chretien) here," he said. "They gave direction. They wanted things to get done. It was political direction from the top, which had the bureaucrats looking the other way.

"I think this is a deputy minister who became very practiced at getting done what his political masters wanted and looking the other way when they did it the messy way."

Kenny said the committee might have to bring Quail back for further questioning. 

The committee will also be calling other witnesses. Williams confirmed today that Gagliano is scheduled to testify on March 17 or 18. And Guite, who is currently out of the country, will be asked this month to appear before the committee. 

The committee has also moved to protect whistleblowers who appear before them. The committee will a present a report to the House to have proposed whistleblower legislation applied to public servants who appear before the committee retroactively. They also have requested that no administrative sanctions be levelled against any public servant below the level of director-general who broke any rules. 

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