Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What's Up With The Crocus Fund? The MB PC's Are Asking

Answers, please ....And and Election....This from the PC Manitoba News Update.

Monday, December 18th

You’d have an easier time nailing Jell-O to the wall than getting Brandon West MLA Scott Smith to share what he knows about the Crocus Investment Fund.

The province’s former industry minister and the man responsible for the labour-sponsored fund in the months leading up to its demise, Smith has been as slippery as an eel when faced with questions about the fund.

In the last two weeks, opposition MLAs have finally received the chance to try and pin down Smith on what he knew and when about Crocus’ problems. The fund stopped trading on Dec. 10, 2004, just a couple of months after Smith was shuffled from the industry beat to intergovernmental affairs and trade. It’s estimated that 34,000 Manitobans lost $60 million as a result of the fund’s problems.

Smith, who now holds the title of Minister of Competitiveness, Training and Trade, has been hounded all fall by the opposition Progressive Conservatives about the role David Woodbury, a political staffer working under Smith, played in terms of relaying issues related to Crocus to Smith and Premier Gary Doer.

During the fall legislative session, Smith was never forced to rise to answer any questions related to Crocus or Woodbury; Doer or Finance Minister Greg Selinger always stepped into the breach to save their colleague from Brandon West. Smith didn’t have that luxury when he finally faced the legislature’s public accounts committee, yet he proved himself more than capable of stonewalling when faced with a simple yes or no question.

Consider this exchange, courtesy of Hansard, between Smith and Ste. Rose PC MLA Glen Cummings.

Cummings asked four times if Woodbury briefed Smith on the Crocus fund, and not once was he given a direct answer:

“I know the members both in the House and at committees have asked many times, was it the butler in the pantry with a tuba? Quite frankly, the members have launched out many names over many, many years regarding this issue,” Smith said at one point. The public accounts committee met again Thursday, and once again it got next to nowhere in terms of new information on Crocus.

This proves two things. First, Manitoba’s public accounts committee is a toothless tiger compared to other legislative committees elsewhere that have the power to compel witnesses to testify and do independent research. Second, Manitobans will get no answers or insight into what really happened with Crocus on Smith and the NDP’s watch without a public inquiry. Unfortunately, a camel will pass through the eye of a needle before Doer voluntarily calls an inquiry into the fund’s demise.

Something obviously went terribly wrong with Crocus, and it’s important that all government members who had knowledge of the board’s undocumented problems before December 2004 account for what they knew and why it appears they did nothing to stop it.

Smith, especially, is at the eye of that storm of public perception: he was the minister responsible for Crocus when it was forced to write down its value and wrestle with liquidity problems, and he was also the minister who signed an agreement in principle to launch an even-bigger “superfund” — an initiative that fortunately went nowhere at the time.

Quite frankly, it’s sad he won’t even answer a simple yes-or-no query about Crocus. Manitobans deserve answers, not backside-covering, from their elected officials. It seems only a judicial inquiry — and unfortunately, that’s something only those same elected officials can order — will ever get to the bottom of the Crocus mess.

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