Learning more about the Aboriginal Congress - funds frozen as audit continues

From June 15 of CNEWS at http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2006/06/15/1634849-cp.html

Aboriginal congress blames 'witch hunt' audit - By SUE BAILEY

OTTAWA (CP) - Federal funding to the only native group that endorsed the Conservatives has been frozen amid concerns about how public cash was spent.

But Patrick Brazeau, head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, accuses bureaucrats of punishing his group for its support of the Tories.

He confirmed that $127,310 must be repaid as the result of an audit that led to a full-blown spending review.

About $5 million from eight departments has been on hold since at least mid-March while auditors continue their work, he said.

Brazeau doesn't dispute that money was misallocated, but he blames an administrative error and said his organization has not been accused of fraud.

"It's an accounting issue," he said.

Cash that should have been spent in 2004-05 - to help Metis groups after Canada's top court confirmed certain rights - was mistakenly carried over and used for related research and a general meeting the next fiscal year, Brazeau said.

He cited what he suspects is a kind of bureaucratic payback for his group's high-profile nod to the Tories during the last election.

"We feel that the officials are punishing CAP for having supported the Conservative party - an audit that takes four and a half months is simply unacceptable.

"We are dealing with peoples' livelihoods. It's just beyond the scope of imagination how federal officials can do this to an organization."

An Indian Affairs official had little to say about how much cash is being assessed and whether legal action has been taken.

"The audit is still underway, so it is too early to provide specific details to that question," said spokeswoman Margot Geduld.

"We understand that (Brazeau) has already introduced changes to the organization's management practices and has co-operated fully with the auditors."

The congress officially endorsed the Tories after receiving assurances the party would work to better serve off-reserve residents represented by the group.

The congress has long been at odds with the Assembly of First Nations and the Metis National Council which claim some of the same constituents.

Rumours of financial troubles swirled when Dwight Dorey, former head of the congress, suddenly resigned in late February.

Dorey vigorously denied then and now that his surprise departure had anything to do with money troubles.

"When I left, as far as I understood, there were no financial difficulties at CAP," he said this week.

Dorey said he didn't oversee the programs that were initially reviewed and didn't hear about the wider audit until after he left to pursue a consulting career.

Brazeau accused "political enemies" of spreading innuendo about the congress that he believes spurred federal auditors.

"In my opinion it was a witch hunt to try and verify that those rumours were indeed true, which they found out were indeed not.

"I strongly feel we're being punished for being accountable, and perhaps they're punishing us for not having found anything to corroborate the rumours."

The Conservatives have made clean government a clarion call since their campaign and ascension to power.

A letter dated March 14 to Brazeau from Fred Caron, assistant deputy minister responsible for Metis and non-Status Indians, said the wider audits would be wrapped up "within approximately three weeks."

Before funding is restored, "we must be in a position to give our minister the highest level of assurance with respect to the accountability of your organization," Caron said in the letter released under Access to Information.

Brazeau noted that Caron offered to work with the congress "should the time it takes to complete our work present CAP with untenable financial pressures."

So far, the only federal cash flowing to the group totals about $473,000 from Health Canada, Brazeau said.

The Congress employs 12 full-time staff and disburses funding to several affiliate groups - work that is threatened as the spending review continues, he added.

"We're basically down to the wire here."