Claude Corbo, UQAM's new rector, left many questions unanswered yesterday when he said that neither the university's board nor the Ministry of Education are to be held even partly responsible for the loss of more than half a billion dollars in public funds.
Surprisingly, unlike the auditor-general's report that also criticized the ministry's inaction and UQAM board members for their lack of vigilance, Corbo pointed solely to the mismanagement of former UQAM rector Roch Denis, former vice-rector for human resources Mauro Malservisi and capital-works manager Nicolas Buono.
He talked of the three men's "decisive role" in the outrageous overspending on the Pierre Dansereau science complex and the Îlot Voyageur project in downtown Montreal. Borrowing the auditor-general's words, Corbo pointed to their disrespect for UQAM's board, their lack of transparency, the undue pressures they put on board members to make quickie decisions, the incomplete and erroneous information they put out, and the contracts they awarded without proper tenders. This was incompetent at best, dishonest at worst.
For this, Corbo has consulted UQAM's legal advisers on the actions the university could take against the trio - none of whom are still employed there, although has Denis collected a pension since he retired last January. The education minister has sent the file to the justice ministry.
Education Minister Michèle Courchesne also refuses to take any responsibility. With her government now in majority territory, according to the polls, Courchesne is obviously wary of the political fallout from the loss of such a large amount of public money.
But politics and possible wrongdoing aside, the fact remains that auditor-general Renaud Lachance fingered the board's lax governance and the ministry's lack of rigorous followup. The ministry's inaction is all the more troubling given that internal memos were circulating as early as 2005, warning about the spiralling costs of Denis's gargantuan real-estate ambitions.
It's understandable that Corbo wants to turn the page. It's also fine for Courchesne to promise a bill next fall to make universities more answerable financially to the government as well as changing how board members are chosen and function.
But the questions surrounding the ministry's responsibility in letting this situation get out of hand should not go unanswered. If the Bernier-Couillard affair is serious enough to be examined by a federal parliamentary committee, why can't a National Assembly commission probe the ministry's role in the loss of more public funds than in the federal sponsorship scandal?
The sciences complex and Îlot Voyageur misadventure also raise questions, once again, on why public institutions strike deals with well connected real-estate promoters and builders - in this case, Busac where Buono even had an office - in which the more a project costs, the more private interests pocket. Isn't this a thinly veiled message to private contractors that no one is really managing the public store and that the public treasury is some kind of bottomless pit?
It also raises the issue of why public institutions strike these deals in which private companies get the profits and taxpayers bear most of the financial risk if costs spiral out of control. Why is the private sector given such an easy ride?
The fact is that the UQAM debacle is only the latest in the list of outrageous cost overruns on public projects.
Still, with Îlot Voyageur, this kind of mismanagement reached new depths. Not only does it remain scandalously unfinished, unlike the expensive Laval métro, it also cripples the capacity of one of Montreal's two francophone universities to do its job with sufficient financial and human resources.
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