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UPDATE N.L. gov’t accused of failing to act on complaints about student program

Ex-N.L. school board official charged with fraud over complaints


 

The government of Premier Danny Williams is facing accusations it failed to take proper steps after being alerted to a potential problem in an exchange program for foreign students.

The Opposition leader in Newfoundland and Labrador said Friday the government’s handling of allegations of wrongdoing in the program are reminiscent of the government’s handling of botched breast-cancer tests. A recruiter with the exchange program e-mailed the premier’s office last year, alleging she was aware of unspecified “corruption.”

“While doing business in the past year, I have learned of serious wrongdoings within a leg of your government,” wrote Lisa O’Neill in a note dated Feb. 5, 2007. “I have tried to let a department of government handle it but no one is moving on it. . . . I don’t know how far this corruption goes but I do have evidence.”

The Liberal party has obtained the e-mail and released a copy of it on Friday. O’Neill did not specify in the e-mail who she told or what she knew, expressing a desire instead to set up a phone conversation with Williams before divulging further information.

O’Neill, believed to be in South Korea, did not return a message seeking comment.

Williams has said he didn’t see the e-mail at the time because his staff determined it was a matter for the Department of Business. Officials in that department turned it over to the Education Department.

When pressed by the Opposition Liberals earlier this week about the program, Education Minister Joan Burke told the legislature she became aware of “a potential issue” involving an employee of the Eastern School District in March 2007. Burke said she was led to believe that the school board had sought legal advice and taken care of the matter.

But the issue resurfaced five months later, in August 2007, when she received more documents that allegedly support O’Neill’s claims of improper conduct. Burke said she insisted that the documents be turned over to the police, despite assurances from government officials that the Eastern School District was responsible for the matter.

The government gave the documents to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in November — two months after the force had launched its investigation into the program.

Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones said the government’s handling of the allegations are similar to the way it reacted when it was told about hundreds of botched breast-cancer tests. “It’s like deja vu,” Jones said in an interview. “What you’re seeing here again is government having access to very important information that needs to be dealt with in appropriate channels, but yet they’ve sat on the information.”

Testimony at a public inquiry has revealed that the government was aware of problems with breast-cancer tests in July 2005, three months before a local newspaper broke a story about the errors. Williams has said that his government was following medical advice when it didn’t notify the public of the testing problems in July 2005. The Newfoundland International Student Exchange Program has also been the subject of a police investigation.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary announced Friday that a former official with the school board is facing fraud and related charges following its investigation into the program. Gary Young of Conception Bay South, N.L., was charged with three counts of fraud under $5,000, and one count each of forgery, uttering a forged document, influence peddling and breach of trust. Const.

Paul Davis said he couldn’t provide details about the case. Young, 52, who is scheduled to appear in court June 17, has not had an opportunity to speak to the charges against him in court and they remain unproven.

Officials with the Eastern School District, the province’s largest school board, declined comment on the case but issued a brief statement Friday. “In December 2006, the Eastern School District became aware of possible financial impropriety by an employee of the district related to the Newfoundland International Student Education Program,” said Eastern School District CEO Darrin Pike. “The Eastern School District conducted an internal investigation that included legal advice and a forensic audit by an external auditor. Following the internal investigation, improved financial controls and protocols have been implemented.”

-with a report from CP 


 
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