The government office running the province's pro-harmonized sales tax campaign secretly doled out contracts to two Liberal-connected companies and a former aide to the minister who introduced the tax, records show. The contracts, according to documents obtained via a freedom of information request, had paid out more than $250,000 as of June 1. That included compensating the ex-aide, Marc Andrew, to do what he called "purely logistical" work for the government panel that provided an independent analysis of the harmonized sales tax.
Internal government guidelines would normally have required those contracts to be awarded via a competitive process because they're valued at $25,000 or more. But the guidelines allow that process to be circumvented - and contracts awarded without public notice - if it would "compromise government confidentiality."
Finance ministry communications director Matt Gordon said that justification was used because the "information, strategies and discussions" disclosed during such a competition would have been of a "privileged" nature. The government was also worried anti-HST forces could gum up a bidding process and delay the start of those contracts.
Campaign Research Inc., which worked on cabinet minister George Abbott's unsuccessful campaign for the Liberal leadership, got the biggest contract - receiving $167,800 for conducting the government's telephone town-hall meetings on the HST.
The company didn't respond Monday to a request for comment. Mr. Gordon said Campaign Research wasn't given that work because of its Liberal connection but rather because it provided the best value out of three quotes privately solicited by the government.
Another $52,746.75 went to Backbone Technology Inc. to develop the province's HST information Website. Backbone has worked for the Liberals since 2001, setting up a private intranet for the party executive, as well as the Liberal Website.
Company president and chief executive officer Marc Charalambous acknowledged those Liberal links, and confirmed that party information director Hoong Neoh provides advice to Backbone on an informal, volunteer basis.
But Mr. Gordon said it was the company's "good reputation" for delivering high-profile government projects on time - including Websites for reviews on health care and postsecondary education - that got it the contract.
"I was called to look at doing this in a short timeline - which is typically the kinds of work we've done for the government. We've done quite a few projects over the last five or six years under such an environment," added Mr. Charalambous.
The third contract went to Mr. Andrew, who says he was initially hired to provide "political analysis" to Tom Syer, the head of the HST information office. The contract was initially set at $17,700 but its value was later raised and it has paid out $33,433.30.
Mr. Syer, who served as a deputy chief of staff to former premier Gordon Campbell, later asked Mr. Andrew to help the independent panel. That included organizing its meetings and assisting its chair, Jim Dinning - Alberta's former provincial treasurer - in preparing the agendas.
Mr. Andrew stressed he personally felt it was "very important" he not provide the panel with any kind of political analysis, given his connection to former finance minister Colin Hansen.
"I did not do so. Jim would not have allowed me to do so. Let me assure you that I was kicked out of the room whenever discussions on contentious issues were being had. It was purely logistical."
Records also show the HST information office directly awarded additional contracts worth up to $163,810 on behalf of the independent panel.
Michael Goehring, vice-president of National Public Relations Inc., received a contract worth up to $4,000 to confidentially ensure the report was plainly written and contained no omissions, while former Vancouver Sun Victoria correspondent Miro Cernetig got one worth up to $37,500 to research, review and produce that document.
Kirk and Co. Consulting Ltd. - the communications firm headed by Judy Kirk, who served as the Liberal caucus's executive director between 1994 and 1996 - was also given a contract worth up to $25,000 to provide the panel with media and public relations advice.
Mr. Gordon said it was Ms. Kirk's reputation not her political background that resulted in the award.
The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned records.