Scandal Soft Sell

City pols eager to avoid pointed questions ON MFP probe

There’s fear that some councillors may use MFP probe to target their enemies. Rating: NNNNN

if toronto councillors are really trying to clear the air surrounding the embarrassing MFP computer leasing scandal, they’re sure going about it in a peculiar way.

In fact, all that the politicians have managed to do since they begrudgingly called for a judicial inquiry into a bureaucratic fiasco that caused the city to pay more than $100 million for megabyte technology worth about $43 million is raise suspicion that many of their number are still intent on sweeping the whole mess under the rug.

Obviously, there is much fear in some quarters that the sorry affair will become the central issue in next year’s municipal election campaign. Political careers will most certainly be at stake — be they Mayor Mel Lastman’s or those of the quislings who’ve tied their ponies to the chief magistrate’s dilapidated wagon.

There was a strong whiff that something was up last week when councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong — one of Lastman’s favourite stalking horses — showed up in the City Hall press gallery to bemoan the cost of the city hiring outside legal counsel to represent it at the upcoming inquiry to be presided over by Madame Justice Denise Bellamy.

The bill for the probe, already pegged in the neighbourhood of $2 million, would climb by at least another million if council enlists lawyers to ask questions on its behalf when the inquiry gets rolling, probably sometime in the fall. It would be better, Minnan-Wong suggested, to leave that job to the “commission counsel” whom Justice Bellamy will hire (also on the city’s dime) to do her bidding.

It was no great surprise, then, when a staff report recommending exactly that came up on the agenda of council’s audit committee last Thursday, April 11.

“The public inquiry is one that acts in the public interest, totally independent of the city,” said the document co-authored by Shirley Hoy, the chief administrative officer, and Anna Kinastowski, the new city solicitor. “Should the city wish to be represented at the inquiry, it would need to retain its own counsel and seek standing.”

But, the report continued, “staff do not recommend retention of city counsel and obtaining standing. The city has, in effect, decided to turn over the inquiry to an independent third party for impartial review.”

Hoy noted that if the city hires a lawyer to represent it at the inquiry, former municipal employees and retired politicians who played key roles in facilitating the controversial leases with MFP Financial Services Ltd. could also demand that taxpayers provide them with legal representation at the hearings. Lawyers for the likes of former treasurer Wanda Liczyk, former information technology director Jim Andrew, his former sidekick, Lana Viinamae, and retired councillor Tom Jakobek won’t come cheap.

All this sudden concern for the public purse is quite moving. But it’s also a very red herring. At the same meeting where audit committee members voted 4-to-2 in favour of the staff recommendation that legal counsel not be hired to represent the city at the inquiry, councillors privately agreed to pay MFP $5 million it owes the Mississauga firm for software licences it didn’t even need.

Supposedly, this was done to prevent MFP from showing up at City Hall to repossess computer equipment the city hasn’t paid for because of all the seeming irregularities in contracts.

Never mind that council voted in February to withhold any further payments to MFP until the public inquiry has concluded and lawsuits the company and the city have launched against one another have been decided. This is one very movable financial feast.

But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the goings-on at audit committee were not so much related to money as they were — and will continue to be — about trying to control how much information actually comes out during the inquiry.

Even Minnan-Wong, a practising lawyer, finally admitted there is “fear that some members of council may try to make the inquiry more prosecutorial” if the city has legal representation at the proceedings. “I think there’s a concern that certain parties may try to influence the process to go after other parties,” he said. It was the councillor’s contention that “the judge represents the city.”

Thank goodness the likes of Minnan-Wong weren’t involved in creating the popular Law And Order television series. Some character portraying a judge would have represented the city of New York, Sam Waterson would have been denied the role of deputy district attorney Jack McCoy, and the show probably would have been cancelled long ago.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of thinking that has plagued the MFP scandal from the word go. The mayor’s office has thrown up roadblocks to every attempt to ferret out the truth, whether it was early demands for an internal forensic audit of the contracts or the initial call for a public inquiry into the company’s cozy relationship with senior bureaucrats.

Only when it became clear that public opinion supported getting to the bottom of the situation did Lastman relent and go with the flow. This flap over lawyers appears to be just the latest attempt at damage control.

Councillor Bas Balkissoon, chair of the audit committee and the politician who blew the whistle on the MFP contracts, was stunned by the staff report. “We need to have counsel at the inquiry to represent the public’s interest,” Balkissoon said. It was Balkissoon who suggested the city hire its own lawyer and enlist Jeff Griffiths, the city auditor, to lend logistical support. But that move was shot down by councillors Gerry Altobello, Doug Holyday, Peter Milczyn and Minnan-Wong. Only councillor Sandra Bussin supported the committee chair.

Councillor David Miller, who has been an invaluable strategic ally to Balkissoon throughout the MFP affair, maintained that the committee’s decision was political folly. “There’ll be a negative public perception if we don’t have legal representation,” he said.

Fortunately, the CAO did take to heart some of the arguments she heard. During Tuesday’s council session, Hoy tabled a two-page report asking that the matter of legal standing be referred back to the administration for further study.

It’s a tall order, but perhaps she can do something to save council from itself.

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