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AUDITOR GENERAL MUST INVESTIGATE CASH BONUS SCHEME: NDP

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From the Alberta NDP

Alberta’s NDP is requesting the Auditor General investigate the UCP government’s process for pandemic management bonuses as new bonus pay policies were only recently approved in March.

According to CBC News, the Government of Alberta paid out $2.4 million in extra compensation to Government of Alberta managers in 2021 for work related to the pandemic.

An updated “Extra or special services compensation directive” was approved by the Alberta Public Service Commission in March 2022, reporting to then-finance minister Travis Toews. The directive includes two processes for lump-sum payouts, one that requires Treasury Board approval and one that does not.

The directive   on the website in February. The creation of a more recent compensation directive suggests considerable effort went into reviewing the policy, raising questions as to how Toews could possibly have no knowledge of the management bonus structure prior to media reports.

“For many Albertans, including members of our caucus who have served as ministers and on Treasury Board, MLA Toews’ claims defy belief,” wrote Alberta NDP Finance Critic Shannon Phillips in a letter to Auditor General Doug Wylie.

“Not only did he have ministerial authority over the policy, but such significant payments, on such a widespread scale, would — as a standard operating procedure — be brought to the attention of the Minister or be considered by the Treasury Board Committee as whole for their appropriateness.”

The Alberta NDP is asking the Auditor General to investigate the following questions:

  1. Was then Minister of Finance Travis Toews ever briefed on COVID bonus pay? And likewise, did the then Minister verbally approve of these payments? Was the Treasury Board Committee of Cabinet ever informed of these payments, either as an item For Decision or For Information?
  2. Was the policy on management bonus pay followed appropriately, during the fiscal year in question?
  3. As the directive on “Extra or special services compensation directive” was reviewed and updated under former Minister Toews, what role did he play in its development and approval? Likewise, what was the timeline on updating this directive?
  4. Did any members of the political staff, in either the Premier’s Office or a Minister’s Office receive bonus payments for COVID19 related actions, which were not in alignment with their employment contract?
  5. In addition to the extraordinary bonus payments paid in 2021, how many bonus payments were made thus far in 2022?

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Letter sent by NDP Finance Critic Shannon Phillips to Alberta Auditor General Doug Wylie

Dear Mr. Wylie,

I am writing to request a performance audit of the Government of Alberta’s bonus payment structure and process related to the COVID-19 pandemic response, and in particular, the actions of the President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance.

As you are likely aware, and as originally reported by the CBC, the Chief Medical Officer of Health received $227,911 in cash benefits in calendar year 2021 on top of her regular salary of $363,634. While this bonus amounted to 63 per cent of her base pay – or roughly $19,000 per month – media has also reported an additional 106 government employees received supplemental bonus pay.

By all indications, the scale and scope of these bonus payments are unique in Alberta’s history, and are out of line with other provinces who faced similar pandemic demands and challenges.

According to responses provided to media by the government, the Public Service Commission overseen by then-Minister of Finance Travis Toews was responsible for the bonus payment policy, and the payments made to these employees..

Subsequent to these bonus payments becoming public and entering the public conversation, former Minister Toews stated on Aug. 2 through a campaign spokesperson, that he did not authorize or have knowledge of these payments.

On Aug. 3, Mr. Toews promised that, as Premier, no bonuses would be paid “without a ministerial signature.” The implication of this commitment was that the Minister responsible for the bonus payments was, at the time, entirely in the dark.

For many Albertans, including members of our caucus who have served as ministers and on Treasury Board, MLA Toews’ claims defy belief. Not only did he have ministerial authority over the policy, but such significant payments, on such a widespread scale, would – as a standard operating procedure – be brought to the attention of the Minister or be considered by the Treasury Board Committee as whole for their appropriateness.

I am mindful that the Government of Alberta’s “Extra or special services compensation directive” (henceforth referred to as the “directive”) under which these officials were compensated was last reviewed and updated in March 2022. As such, it does not appear reasonable that the Minister responsible would not be aware and actively involved in the directives’ development and approval, and I should note that the directive does not require a ministers’ signature for the paying of bonuses. I also note with interest that the directive was not on the government’s website as of February 2022, suggesting that considerable thought went into policy for the provision of extraordinary bonus payments after 2021, and that the new directive would allow for similar payments in 2022.

Perhaps more importantly, the directive “provides the criteria and approach to the application of lump sum payments.” While there appears to be two types of lump sum payments under this directive, at least one requires Treasury Board approval. Given the threshold of Treasury Board approval under this directive, is it not reasonable to conclude that any lump sum payments to such a large group of officials would not be brought to the attention of the minister responsible.
Furthermore, I am mindful that former Minister Toews, during calendar year 2021, was actively involved in public sector bargaining and compensation, and brought forward to cabinet changes to management compensation in the core public service (see for example, Order in Council 338/2021). The record indicates that the former Minister was deeply involved in compensation issues, including for specific employees, and therefore Albertans are rightly skeptical of his
current claims of ignorance on the COVID bonus payment issue.

In June 2022, you released a report into the activities of then Minister Toews, and Treasury Board and Finance, into the lack of accountability for $4 billion in COVID19 spending during fiscal year 2020-21.

As bonuses are generally paid at the end of the year, and as part of your further performance audit work into COVID19 spending for fiscal year 2021-2022, we are requesting that you investigate and report on the following issues:

1. Was then Minister of Finance Travis Toews ever briefed on COVID bonus pay? And likewise, did the then Minister verbally approve of these payments? Was the Treasury Board Committee of Cabinet ever informed of these payments, either as an item For Decision or For Information?

2. Was the policy on management bonus pay followed appropriately, during the fiscal year in question?

3. As the directive on “Extra or special services compensation directive” was reviewed and updated under former Minister Toews, what role did he play in its development and approval? Likewise, what was the timeline on updating this directive?

4. Did any members of the political staff, in either the Premier’s Office or a Minister’s Office receive bonus payments for COVID19 related actions, which were not in alignment with their employment contract?

5. In addition to the extraordinary bonus payments paid in 2021, how many bonus payments were made thus far in 2022?

The issue of the appropriateness of bonus pay for selected officials during the COVID19 response has generated significant discussion amongst Albertans. More importantly, the role of ministerial oversight and competency has also been called into question on this matter. Given the opaqueness of the Government of Alberta’s responses to legitimate public inquiries, we are asking for your assistance.

At present, only your office has the authority to investigate and answer the public’s questions. We strongly believe that the aforementioned issues warrant your immediate attention, and we look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Shannon Phillips
NDP Official Opposition Finance Critic
MLA for Lethbridge-West

 

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Alberta

Smith won’t seek early vote if she wins UCP leadership, becomes next Alberta premier

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United Conservative Party leadership candidate Danielle Smith says if she wins this week’s vote and becomes the next Alberta premier, she would not call an early election to seek a broad mandate on her policy ideas.

Smith, the perceived front-runner in the race, says the public tends to punish leaders who call an early election.

She says she would wait until the next scheduled election in May 2023, but believes she has a mandate now to proceed with her plans.

Smith has said she would immediately pass an Alberta sovereignty act, which would allow the province to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed not in its interest.

Legal experts, some of Smith’s leadership rivals and Premier Jason Kenney have labelled the act not only illegal but a recipe for constitutional and economic chaos.

Smith has also talked about revamping the health system by using health spending accounts and firing the board of Alberta Health Services, which oversees the front-line delivery of care.

Today is the last day for advance voting, as seven candidates dig in for the final campaign push before UCP members select a new leader to replace Kenney on Thursday.

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Alberta

Alberta commits $20.8 million over the next four years to fight human trafficking

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By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Alberta government is providing $20.8 million over the next four years to implement recommendations from a star-led task force on human trafficking.

Country singer Paul Brandt, chair of the Alberta Human Trafficking Task Force, personally thanked Premier Jason Kenney during the funding announcement Sunday at Edmonton International Airport for his willingness to prioritize the issue, and for putting faith in Brandt to lead the group.

“Premier Kenney’s longtime personal dedication and commitment to the issue of human trafficking is authentic and is admirable,” Brandt said.

“He’s the only political leader I’ve met in my 17 years of advocating for trafficking victims and survivors who took the time and initiative to personally write a plan to address this horrific crime.”

The money will establish an office to combat trafficking as well as a centre of excellence for research and data collection — recommendations the government accepted when the task force presented its report in March.

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said the goal is to launch the office by next summer.

Other task force recommendations that will be supported include a new grant for community projects and Indigenous-led and culturally appropriate services. Civilian positions that will focus on supporting victims and survivors throughout human trafficking investigations will also be funded.

“Human trafficking is far more prevalent — way more common — than the stats would suggest because it’s a hidden crime,” Kenney said at the announcement.

“It festers in the dark. There are victims who face fear, shame and self-doubt and some who will never report what they’ve gone through.”

The task force was appointed in May 2020 and engaged with nearly 100 experts and survivors of trafficking to provide guidance on how to best implement the government’s action plan to fight human trafficking.

The government has said human trafficking includes sexual exploitation, forced labour trafficking and trafficking in human organs or tissues.

Kenney, who will be replaced as premier when his United Conservative Party selects a new leader on Thursday, noted he started fighting human trafficking over 20 years ago when he was an MP and joined a group of international parliamentarians on a coalition to fight the practice.

Later as Canada’s immigration minister, he said he took steps to make it easier for human trafficking victims who had migrated to Canada to obtain safety and protection.

In winter 2019, he said he committed the UCP to a nine-point action plan to combat human trafficking, which led to the Protecting Survivors of Human Trafficking Act, which took effect in May 2020.

Brandt said it was exciting to be part of the funding commitment at the airport, where he said he stood in 2019 for a partnership with the facility and other groups in the Edmonton region to fight trafficking, which he called “modern day slavery.”

“It has been our dream that special focus and permanent funding would one day become a reality. Today is that day,” Brandt said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2022.

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