Brad Cathers wants a judicial inquiry into the ATCO scandal.
An inquiry alone would help clear up confusion over Premier Dennis Fentie’s role in negotiating the privatization of Yukon Energy with Alberta-based ATCO, he said yesterday.
Cathers, MLA for Lake Laberge, quit his job as energy minister in August to protest Fentie’s handling of the affair. He now sits as an independent.
Yesterday he had his first chance to ask a question from across the floor. He used it as an opportunity to call for an inquiry, and to slam Fentie for refusing to answer many questions about his role in the scandal.
“The premier has repeatedly dodged and skated around the tough questions and is reverting to his old, tired, desperate responses about how everyone else is wrong. Then he points his fingers at officials and sends them to answer the questions and take the blame,” said Cathers.
The inquiry would see cabinet ministers, including Fentie, testify under oath, along with officials from the public utility, government, ATCO, and Yukon Energy’s board of directors.
But this won’t happen, said Fentie.
A judicial inquiry was considered, but would have been too expensive, said Fentie.
Instead, Fentie wants the matter dealt with by the legislature’s public accounts committee. But the committee would be hobbled by its limited mandate, said Cathers.
Its job is to scrutinize whether government policy has been properly followed. Yet “the key questions regarding the government’s talks with ATCO have always been about the premier’s involvement and the premier’s actions,” said Cathers.
And these questions are beyond the committee’s reach.
“This is another deflection technique, another attempt by the premier to put officials out front and not answer the questions himself,” said Cathers.
Fentie’s enthusiasm for the public accounts committee should also be seen as suspect, said Cathers, as “it wasn’t many months ago that he told government members to scuttle the committee.”
At that time, the government’s members announced they would not allow the committee to work until its chair, Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell, quit. They accused Mitchell of “politicizing” the committee by trying to have it look into the government’s $36.5 million investment in asset-backed commercial paper.
Now, in a sudden role-reversal, Fentie is goading Mitchell to allow the committee to do its work.
But this hasn’t provided much of a distraction from the mess that Fentie finds himself in. The Liberals have spent the week pounding away at various contradictory statements that Fentie has made about the ATCO scandal.
For example, Fentie told reporters in June that he had never met Nancy Southern, ATCO’s CEO and president. Yet on Monday, Fentie tabled a letter he had written to Southern in November of 2008, which begins by thanking her for meeting with him.
Mitchell repeatedly asked Fentie to explain the contradiction. Fentie wouldn’t.
Fentie also denies that privatization was ever considered, when documents flatly contradict him.
He claims that negotiations never started with ATCO, when government officials admit as much.
And Fentie has never directly addressed allegations made by Cathers when he tendered his resignation—namely, that Fentie had snuck behind the backs of cabinet ministers to issue orders to officials, had lied to the public, and had pressured Cathers to corroborate his story.
Instead of answering questions put to him, Fentie has largely fallen back on his trademark bluster, accusing the opposition of having conducted a “bush-league sham.”
Fentie claimed it’s impossible that the government considered privatization when the territory talked with ATCO about a proposed merger, which would have seen the selloff of public assets and ceded management control over to private hands.
As proof, he pointed to how the new company would still be regulated by the Yukon Utilities Board.
Nonsense, replied Mitchell. ATCO already operates the Yukon Electrical Company, which is a regulated, private company.
Jim Kenyon at one point stepped into the line of fire on Fentie’s behalf. He denied reports that he had threatened to resign on December 8, when told about Fentie’s negotiations to privatize Yukon Energy.
“The discussion that he referred to never happened. It did not happen. It was referred to in the media in a location that we weren’t even in,” Kenyon told the legislature on Monday.
“None of it is true.”
This is the first time Kenyon has responded to the accusations. He had in the past refused to discuss the matter.
But Kenyon is wrong, said Willard Phelps, the former chair of Yukon Energy’s board. He and three directors resigned in June to protest Fentie’s privatization plans.
“He walked in and complained he didn’t know anything about this,” Phelps said in an interview. “He was pretty upset. He wanted to resign because he was out of the loop.”
“Everybody heard him,” said Phelps. “It’s kind of pathetic.”
Board members Greg Hakonson, Paul Hunter and Martin Allen have all corroborated Phelps’ story. So has Cathers.
A judicial inquiry would help resolve all this. Already, both Phelps and Cathers have agreed to testify under oath.
But with the government enjoying majority control of the legislature, thanks to John Edzerza’s recent return to the Yukon Party, it appears this won’t happen.
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