Sunday, April 11, 2010

Behind the mask

The sixth and final person charged in the House of Assembly spending scandal pleaded guilty on Friday (April 9th, 2010) to defrauding Newfoundland and Labrador taxpayers and bribing a government official.

His name is John William Hand.

I know him as Ooga Booga.

An off-the-wall nickname, but more than fitting in that Mr. Hand was once an importer of such Asian knickknacks as teak tribal masks with green eyes and fangs.

The mask you see at the head of this post was imported from Asia by JAS Enterprises, which was owned by the family of Mr. Hand, a St. John’s businessman and friend of Bill Murray, the House of Assembly’s former director of financial operations.

The mask was given to me in 2007, as then-editor of The Independent, by a former business associate of Mr. Hand as part of the newspaper’s ongoing investigation of the House of Assembly spending scandal.

“Ooga booga” were the first two words that left my lips when I saw the mask.

And so the nickname was born.

“Questionable payments” of more than $2.6 million were made to three companies — JAS Enterprises, Cedar Scents International and Zodiac Agencies — for untendered trinkets like lapel pins, gold rings, and fridge magnets over a seven-year period.

Ooga Booga (sorry, Mr. Hand) is linked to all three companies.

On Friday past, he pleaded guilty at provincial court in St. John’s to all charges against him, including fraud over $5,000, frauds on the government and breach of probation.

As The Telegram pointed out in its Weekend edition, Ooga Booga has a history of stealing money from taxpayers.

Including a small fortune from ACOA.

The facts of how Ooga Booga ripped off the House of Assembly (and you and I in the process) won’t be revealed until an Aug. 27th sentencing hearing.

Can’t wait.

Like I said to start this post, Ooga Booga/Mr. Hand is the sixth person charged in conjunction with the corruption scandal — including four MHAs (Liberals Jim Walsh and Wally Andersen, Tory Ed Byrne, and NDPer Randy Collins), as well as former bureaucrat Bill Murray.

No other charges are pending in relation to the police investigation of the legislature, dubbed Operation Radius.

But then how could there be?

A crime is only committed when a law is broken.

And — in the mother of all ironies — the House of Assembly didn’t have any real spending laws to break.

What about the MHAs who sat on the House of Assembly’s Internal Economy Commissions when decisions were made to nurture and grow constituency allowance slush funds?

Will those MHAs ever be taken to task?

Will they ever be made to publish an apology in the newspaper like some bureaucratic scapegoat?

Not a chance.

In May 2007 a 1,311-page report was released by Justice Derek Green into “constituency allowances and related matters” that didn’t name a single political soul.

Not a one.

It rots me to know that the real “masterminds” behind the House of Assembly spending scandal will never be taken to task.

And that the decision whether to call an inquiry into the scandal was left in the hands of the MHAs themselves.

The ultimate conflict of interest.

Politicians must be held accountable.

Or they should be issued Ooga Booga masks when they’re elected to hide behind.
Finally, I got an e-mail over the weekend from a reader who had come across an old column I had written for The Independent about the misuse of government money.

The reader asked why Beaton Tulk and his wife Dora weren’t investigated for the trips they took on the taxpayers’ tab.

Like I said, you can’t break the rules if there aren’t any.

Here’s a copy of the column.

Unhonourable mention

Friday, February 08, 2008

The press had a nickname for Beaton Tulk when he served as an MHA, cabinet minister and premier, and it didn’t exactly rhyme with honourable.

No sir, the name rhymed with Beaton Tulk, and while it was funny, it wasn’t complimentary, not in the least. The media might have whispered it behind his sizeable frame (or above his head, in the press gallery overlooking the House of Assembly), but never to his face — out of respect (more on that word in a moment) as much as a fear of a good heavyweight pounding.

Normally, I’d never repeat the nickname in print, but considering the amount of taxpayers’ money Beaton Tulk spent on prime cuts of beef over the years, Eatin’ Bulk seems a fitting tag. He spent like a drunken butcher. As of today, his wife, Dora Tulk, has a new name herself — Dora the Explorer — for the dozens of return flights she took to central Newfoundland from St. John’s with money from her husband’s constituency allowance fund.

Mr. Bulk spent tens of thousands of dollars of government money on food, travel, liquor, legal bills and assorted odds and ends while in office — a shocking abuse of the public trust. How Mr. Bulk spent his personal slush fund may not have been illegal (there were no rules), but it seems to have broken unwritten guidelines for common sense and sound moral judgment.

The same can be said for Paul “Baby Duck” Dicks, and Chuck “Wagon” Furey. Their constituency allowance expenses have also been exposed by The Independent in recent weeks, revealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable claims. Those claims escalated for each year they were in office, so that by the time they left politics they were living like Newfoundland lords.

Dicks, it has been noted in this space, spent as much time in the House reading through his latest wine catalogue as he did perusing government legislation. Furey could have owned shares in at least one high-end downtown St. John’s restaurant for the amount of time he fed there.

So far all you’ve read about are the expenses claimed under constituency allowances for five politicians (Mr. Bulk, Furey, Dicks, as well as former premiers Brian Tobin and Roger Grimes).

Ideally, we would bring you the information much quicker, but The Independent is forced to move at government’s snail pace, as slow as freezing cold molasses.

The requests for information must be filed formally, followed by the normal wait times for government officials to research and prepare information for public release. Once the information is gathered, reporters are forced to spend hours and hours in government offices reviewing the paperwork and writing notes, as a means to sidestep a small fortune in photocopying fees.

Dozens more formal requests for breakdowns of constituency allowance spending remain outstanding.

But there’s more — much more. The Independent has filed further requests for a look at how ministers spent their cabinet allowances. Wait until those dollar figures are added on top of the constituency allowance claims. If politicians aren’t already seen as having lived high on the hog, they will be. There have been times when MHAs danced a jig on the hog’s shoulders.

The trends are slowly emerging — overspending, poor bookkeeping, questionable expenditures and on and on.

More than ever, MHAs don’t seem deserving of the title honourable. Rules and guidelines have been put in place since the spending scandal broke to govern politicians, but they shouldn’t need to be told, in writing, not to spend $200 at the local liquor store on a Friday night or $500 for a steak dinner for 10 of their closest buddies.

Respect must be earned, and it hasn’t been. Maybe the public should start a campaign to drop the automatic honorific of honourable. The word means nothing. It’s a sad joke on the state of our political affairs.

It’s been said Newfoundlanders elect rogues to office because, while they’re likely to take from the public purse, they’re also more likely to spread at least a little bit of their take around for the rest of us.

It seems that most people are just looking for the minimum shaft from their elected representative. No more, no less. Just don’t stick it in too far.

Not good enough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ok! So if elected what yaw going to do about it? Roogie Cloogie.
Start your own transparency first, before you put on your own mask and hide away, Give us a top 10 or so agenda for Ryan Cleary NDP MP.