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HomePoliticsOpinion | Bonnie Lysyk has overshot and underdelivered as Ontario’s auditor general

Opinion | Bonnie Lysyk has overshot and underdelivered as Ontario’s auditor general

Goodness knows governments can be bad, which is why democracy depends on scrutiny and accountability.

But as Bonnie Lysyk winds down her controversial 10-year reign as Ontario’s auditor general, poking and probing the bureaucracy in a perennial quest for publicity, it’s worth asking one last time:

Who audits the auditor? Who watches the watchdog?

Do we fully understand her mandate? Does she?

In this year’s report, the auditor adopts the pose of Monday morning quarterback to bemoan COVID-19 waste during the early days of testing and vaccinating. Given the desperate urgency, the risk of falling short and the high stakes in human life, the only surprise is that Lysyk insisted on interrogating and intimidating exhausted civil servants on these matters before they could even catch their breath in mid-pandemic.

For Lysyk is no ordinary auditor, no mere bean counter. Ontario’s auditor general is the big enchilada.

Her stated mandate? “Value for money” audits that look at taxpayers’ own money, viewed through the auditor’s own value system year after year.

Her unstated mission creep? This year it’s an undercover sting operation to expose money laundering in Ontario casinos, even if there’s not much dirty laundry to wash in public this time.

Perhaps inspired by an Ian Fleming novel set in a posh Riviera casino, Lysyk deployed an undercover team to infiltrate the mundane casinos of Niagara and beyond. You might imagine that to be the mandate of the Ontario Provincial Police — which, in fact, it is — but that didn’t stop the auditor from hiring “mystery shoppers” from a private consulting firm to try their hand at gambling and laundering.

Unlike the glamorous Agent 007, Lysyk’s specially commissioned operatives didn’t win big. On balance, it was a bust for her James Bond stand-ins.

The casinos slapped “trespass orders” on the “mystery shoppers.” The OPP investigated and asked the auditor to knock it off.

As a headline-hunting, clickbait-chasing stunt, it fell flat. Yet Lysyk remains unrepentant about this undercover sting, telling reporters Wednesday that she values this kind of value for money auditing.

At two locations, Lysyk’s mystery gamblers converted part of their cash into casino cheques worth thousands of dollars — laundering light. Elsewhere, they were caught red handed and shown the door.

“OPP officers were notified of the suspicious activity of our mystery shoppers by the casino operator and correctly investigated the mystery shoppers for the potential threat of money laundering,” her report acknowledges almost grudgingly.

What did Lysyk learn from this crapshoot? Among other things, casinos should “obtain proof of source of funds at buy-in for … amounts of $10,000 or more,” reads one of her seemingly reasonable recommendations.

Except that the OLG, which regulates casinos, replied with a revelation of its own, reprinted in the report: It was already in the process of demanding precisely that information from gamblers, “consistent with federal requirements that are coming into force in June 2023.”

Not for the first time, the auditor’s big bet on a bold headline yielded little of much. But like a gambler who keeps coming back for more, the auditor has spent the past decade overshooting and underdelivering.

Lysyk famously declared a balanced budget unbalanced under the previous Liberal government, dismissing an outside panel that pointed out her accounting errors. She wouldn’t back down after wrongly accusing Metrolinx of installing a bridge “truss” upside down (defying the laws of physics — she confused it with a support beam).

She falsely accused the Pan Am Games organizing committee of wiping and hard drives (disproved by the privacy commissioner). And she bizarrely ordered up a public-opinion poll to find out if the last government’s environmental policies were unpopular with consumers.

If the watchdog goes awry, is there a way to keep watch? She has refused to comply with access to information requests by the Star, but happily the auditor general is herself audited by an independent firm, whose report shows that Lysyk’s office has gone from an operating surplus of $221,779 to a deficit of $791,090. (The shortfall was not anticipated in her own budget projections.)

Mission creep, however, is harder to rein in. The auditor general is an independent officer of the legislature, but Lysyk seems unable to resist lecturing legislators on how to do their jobs.

In this year’s report, she recommends to MPPs that they change the way they scrutinize the government’s budgetary estimates. In a polite but pointed reply, reprinted in the annual report, legislative clerk Todd Decker notes that it opted to heed advice of the Financial Accountability Officer offered several years before she weighed in. (The FAO is also an independent officer of the legislature, whose analysis of government finances is released long before the auditor repeatedly and belatedly duplicates her rival’s work.)

For all her overarching vision and values, the auditor’s blind spots are bizarre. She has never noted nor investigated the disappearance of more than $11 million in government funds, for which a fired civil servant stands accused in court — first revealed and repeatedly documented by my colleague Robert Benzie.

The recurring problem is that this auditor general, rather like an excitable epidemiologist on Twitter or an unrestrained gambler in the casino, has become addicted to the heady rush of attention. Perhaps Lysyk’s successor, having read her voluminous reports and errant recommendations of the past decade, will learn from her mistakes.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn


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