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Shaming feds for flood audit

Innkeeper demands report's release

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The Manitoba innkeeper who blew the whistle on alleged mismanagement of millions of taxpayer dollars intended for flood evacuees -- and who is still seeking payment for housing and feeding some of them -- is taking to the airwaves to settle his dispute with Ottawa.

In a series of ads due to run this week on radio, Mike Bruneau accuses the federal government of not being accountable for what he says is $100 million spent in the last three years.

In fact, it's $101 million.

More than 2,000 residents from five Interlake First Nations were forced from their homes during the 2011 flood and Bruneau took in some of them at his Misty Lake Lodge just north of Gimli and at a motel in Ashern. Three years later, 1,953 evacuees remain unable to return home, and Bruneau says he is still owed about $3 million after long battles to recover the bills from the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters.

Bruneau's campaign to force some transparency on Ottawa is now targeting Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada on talk radio.

That, he says, is the best place to appeal to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative base.

"There are 24 spots, 30 seconds each and they run Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. People should know where that $100 million was spent," Bruneau said in an interview.

"The only time I ever get any results, the only time anyone ever talks to me, is when I get media involved."

In an email, the regional office of the Aboriginal Affairs Department confirmed the report was submitted. It will eventually be posted online, the email said.

Bruneau believes the answers are contained in an investigation of the MANFF conducted by auditors KPMG but never made public. He says the report was completed a year ago and its very existence appears cloaked in secrecy.

The bulk of the money, $93.2 million, represents costs paid through MANFF. The Canadian Red Cross, which has overseen the evacuees since February, has been paid some $8 million.

Ottawa had three other audits and reviews conducted, though only one has been made public.

In February 2013, Ottawa ordered Halifax firm Hallux Consulting to undertake a management review of MANFF's work for Aboriginal Affairs.

That spring, it ordered a financial investigation into claims Bruneau made public that he was owed millions in unpaid hotel bills. It confirmed the claims. Ottawa sent Bruneau a cheque for $2.6 million in July 2013.

Bruneau's immediate aim is to get the KPMG report out in the open.

He is also resorting to legal action and filed a statement of claim this month against MANFF for the $3 million in outstanding bills -- over and above the $2.6 million he has recovered. The outstanding balance mainly covers expenses since April 2013 at Misty Lake, where the last evacuee left last November before the facility closed down two months ago. MANFF won't comment on the lawsuit.

Commentators said Bruneau's strategy might work.

Tom Flanagan, the political adviser who helped put Harper in power, says media campaigns have a good chance of getting his former boss's attention.

"The kind of campaign you're talking about does work with the government if it seems to be getting popular traction, particularly among demographics who would usually vote Conservative," he said in an email.

"We'll have to see what kind of media echo chamber develops around the issue, and whether local Conservative MPs begin to feel some heat, which they then transmit to the PMO," said Flanagan.

Alex Marland, of Memorial University in Newfoundland, notes it takes persistence and deep pockets to keep up the pressure on government.

"We live in a world where the news moves quickly, and lots of people and organizations are competing for media coverage," Marland, an expert on political branding and lead editor of a book Political Communication in Canada: Meet the Press and Tweet the Rest, said in an email. "Innovative and changing tactics that will attract the media's attention are needed to keep issues in the public eye. Otherwise, topics fade from public memory, and so does the pressure on government elites."

Bruneau has a track record of going toe to toe with Ottawa and on the flood file; he is probably Manitoba's most persistent gadfly. And he does it on the cheap. The ads cost $1,500. His earlier campaign only cost him time.

Talk of mismanagement bubbled under the radar until April 2013, when Bruneau went public with receipts of unpaid hotel bills, allegations of nepotism, inflated expenses and outrageous claims of overtime. He and former MANFF employee Ted Ducharme produced bills for pizza delivered nightly to evacuees at Winnipeg hotels, reports of drunken behaviour by staff overseeing evacuees and even an account of a romantic getaway for one senior MANFF executive, all at taxpayer expense.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2014 A4

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