ATCO scandal buried

Seven months ago, Premier Dennis Fentie said the ATCO energy privatization scandal would be properly investigated, adding the proper place to hold hearings would be the territory's public accounts committee. So much for that.

Seven months ago, Premier Dennis Fentie said the ATCO energy privatization scandal would be properly investigated, adding the proper place to hold hearings would be the territory’s public accounts committee.

So much for that.

Yesterday, on the last day of the legislature’s sitting, the Yukon Party-dominated committee quietly broke the news, in a terse, one-paragraph report, there would be no investigation.

Hearings were scrapped because “the Auditor General of Canada has informed the committee that the matter is one of government policy that is not within the purview of her office,” the letter states.

No surprise there. The ATCO affair has raised plenty of questions, but none having to do with the government’s accounting practices.

Instead, the most damaging scandal to shake the Yukon Party government has everything to do with the behavior of Fentie.

According to Brad Cathers, who quit as Energy Minister over the affair, and half the members of Yukon Energy’s board who quit for the same reason, Fentie proposed to sell off the assets of Yukon’s public utility to Alberta-based ATCO.

Fentie has always strenuously denied that privatization was ever considered, although documents flatly contradict him. He also denies negotiations ever started with ATCO, while officials admit they did.

So did Fentie lie to the public, as Cathers and others have publicly alleged, or didn’t he?

There’s a fat stack of documents sitting in the bowels of government that could set the record straight once and for all. But they’re not being released.

The reason offered by the territory’s officials is the papers contain sensitive information that, if released, could harm the government’s financial interests.

Cathers has another explanation: the documents, if released, would discredit Fentie.

It’s no surprise that the committee was a poor place to examine the ATCO affair. It has a narrow mandate: to ensure the government’s financial policies are being properly followed.

And while the committee is chaired by Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell, the majority of chairs are filled by Yukon Party members: Patrick Rouble, Glenn Hart, Marian Horne and Steve Nordick. Other members are the Liberals’ Don Inverarity and the NDP’s Steve Cardiff.

The proper place to air the ATCO affair would be a judicial inquiry, Cathers has always insisted. He’s also noted it’s highly unlikely Fentie would willingly take the stand on the matter.

But shunting the matter off to the committee was probably a clever move for the Yukon Party. If anything, it’s bought Fentie seven months. During that time he’s had an excuse that may have sounded superficially plausible to the many Yukoners unfamiliar with the workings of government.

Now that excuse has worn out, but, seven months on, the scandal has lost its sense of urgency and public anger has dissipated.

Nonetheless, the Liberals’ Gary McRobb renewed calls for a public inquiry into the ATCO affair yesterday during question period. Fentie responded with a series of deflections.

First he pointed out “there has been a process that has even gone through the public accounts committee and it is pretty clear.”

Second, he offered the irrelevant point that the territory has an energy strategy and is building a new hydroelectric upgrade in Mayo.

Last, Fentie said the rules forbid him from engaging in privatization talks without the approval of Yukon Energy’s board.

“How can you have negotiations for something that you can’t sell in the first place without board approval?” Fentie asked.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.